Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Great Upcyclers #3: Stephanie Kilgast

Stephanie produces beautiful, unique artworks combining objets trouvés (found items), household trash and air-drying clay. As she says in her artist's statement: 

'My work is an ode to life. Humans are a part of nature, which we often like to forget, creating an artificial barrier of tar between us and the mud. Unfortunately, by destroying our environment so radically, we are destroying ourselves. It is up to us to find an equilibrium between our activities, and our desire to thrive intellectually and culturally, without completely eradicating our very home. With my choice of bold and vibrant colours, I offer a cheerful post-apocalyptic world. While I talk about a heavy subject, the disastrous impact of human activities, I also wish that people leave my work with a feeling of happiness and hope, and keep fighting. In the end, through my work, I would like to provoke wonder of the living while questioning the status quo of our current societies.' 

Here is some of her beautiful work:

Her website is here

Her Youtube channel is here.

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Is there Good Art and Bad Art?

Following on from September's discussion about 'What is Art?', today I've decided to look at whether there's any such thing as good art and bad art.

Do you ever look at a piece of art and say 'That's brilliant!' or 'That's terrible!'

How valid are your views? Or anybody else's? 

Carl Rogers once said that, ‘The very essence of the creative is its novelty, and hence we have no standard by which to judge it.’ 

Let's for a moment, compare art with another great pleasure - eating. How are the products of professional chefs judged?  

Fast food restaurants aim to produce and sell as many standardised units as possible; go into a McDonalds’ pretty much anywhere in the world and the Big Macs will be the same. The company has set a standard and aims to ensure that every meal meets it. Their success is judged on homogeneity and numbers of units sold. But now look at a more upmarket restaurant. How do we judge its food? We look for originality, creativity and quality rather than sameness. Both types of restaurant achieve significant standards. But would you rather eat in a Michelin starred restaurant or a fast food outlet? The point here is that, depending on who you ask, the answer you get will be different.

Art is nigh-on impossible to standardise. Could you wander around the National Gallery and assign grades to each piece? How will you score them and against what benchmark will you compare them? Would Turner’s paintings score equally as well as Barbara Hepworth’s stones with holes in them or Jackson Pollock’s drizzled canvasses? They’re all so different. 

Visual art is unique among subjects in that there are no rights or wrongs. Every rule is there to be broken and your choice of medium is limited only by your imagination. All you need is the passion and drive to do it and the belief that what you create has value. It can be wrapping a river bridge in gold cloth. It can be spraying on a wall with an aerosol paint can and cut-out templates. It can be a photograph of a crucifix in a tank of urine. Art doesn’t stand up to comparison between artists and styles. You can’t compare unlike with unlike. 

How do you compare an apple to an orange? Or a banana to a pear? 

They all differ hugely in flavour, texture and colour. Against what scale are you measuring, comparing or contrasting? If you want to know which is the juiciest, you can pulp them and see. If you want to know which is sweetest, you can test for sugars. 

But which fruit are good and which are bad? How do you test to see which is the best

You can’t, of course. All we can say is which we’d prefer. And we might all choose differently … which means that, depending on who you ask, all of them could potentially be the ‘best’. Or, indeed, the worst. You can't compare unlike with unlike.

But what about professional art critics, I hear you ask? Can't they guide us?

Not really. Because they can't agree on good or bad either.

In 1998, conceptual artist Tracey Emin famously suffered a three day emotional and physical breakdown in which she spent most of her time in her bedroom. She then transported her bed - unwashed and unmade – and its immediate environs to Tate Britain and put it on display as My Bed. It was also entered for the prestigious Turner Prize and Emin sold the piece for a reported £150,000 to the Saatchi Gallery. This is how the gallery catalogues the piece: ‘A consummate storyteller, Tracey Emin engages the viewer with her candid exploration of universal emotions. Well-known for her confessional art, Emin reveals intimate details from her life to engage the viewer with her expressions of universal emotions. Her ability to integrate her work and personal life enables her to establish an intimacy with the viewer. Tracey shows us her own bed, in all its embarrassing glory. Empty booze bottles, fag butts, stained sheets, worn panties: the bloody aftermath of a nervous breakdown. By presenting her bed as art, Tracey Emin shares her most personal space, revealing she’s as insecure and imperfect as the rest of the world.’ Are you convinced? Maybe you are, maybe you aren’t. But that’s the issue under discussion here; opinion. Whether you love the piece or not – and few living artists divide popular opinion more than Tracey Emin - there’s no doubt that it is considered fine art by the experts. Or some of them anyway. 

Influential critic Brian Sewell called the piece ‘self-sentimental memorabilia’ and said of Emin herself: ‘The sane man must ask whether he should give any of this pretentious stuff the time of day in aesthetic terms when it seems that this self-regarding exhibitionist is ignorant, inarticulate, talentless, loutish and now very rich.’ Michael Glover called her work ‘unadulterated, self-indulgent crap’ and, most savage of all, Philip Hensher wrote: ‘Is it possible to be a good conceptual artist and also very stupid? There's no hope for Tracey Emin. She's just no good.’ But balance that against popular critic and documentary maker Waldemar Januszczak who wrote of Emin’s work: ‘It's a voice that has never been heard in art before because the Professor Higginses who run the art world have never allowed it into art before.’ Or Marcus Field who said that, ‘Some have questioned whether such apparent unmediated outpourings can constitute art. And yet there is so clearly artistry involved. Apart from the obvious handiwork, there's the crucial defining feature of an artwork: that it should not only represent life, but reveal something about it, too. Her work may not do this for many of the men or metropolitan elite who despise it so much, but I suspect that it articulates feelings for others in a way unique in fine art.’ 

See what I mean? So, having established that (a) art is almost impossible to define, (b) that there is no right or wrong in art, and (c) that even the experts can’t agree with each other over what is or isn’t good  art, can we now satisfy ourselves that their opinions are no more valid or accurate than your own? 

Yes, I think we can. And history is on our side.

Van Gogh produced over 2000 works but only sold two in his lifetime. The ‘experts’ of his day regarded his emotional, vibrant paintings as the ‘daubings of an idiot’. 

Franz Kafka’s work was so unique that a description – ‘kafka-esque’ – was coined to describe a particular style of writing. Yet he died of starvation and tuberculosis aged just 40. 

John Keats died of TB at the even younger age of 25 but his poetry wasn’t recognised as anything special until some 70 years after his death. 

And let’s not forget the cautionary tale of Pierre Brassau ... 

In February 1964, art critics were invited to the first public exhibition of Brassau’s works in Goteburg, Sweden. And they loved it. One wrote: ‘Pierre Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.’ Several paintings sold on opening night. It was only later that the Göteborgs-Tidningen newspaper revealed that Brassau was, in fact, Peter - a 4½ year old West African chimpanzee who lived in Boras Zoo. His keeper reported that Peter loved paint. Literally. The chimp had eaten a whole tube of cobalt blue and had so enjoyed its tart taste that he had started to play with any paints he could find. 

And relatively recently, in 2005, Katja Schneider, the director of the State Art Museum of Moritzburg in Saxony-Anhalt, mistook a painting by Banghi, a 31-year-old female chimp for a work by Guggenheim Prize-winning artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay. ‘It looks like an Ernst Wilhelm Nay’, she said with authority, ‘He was famous for using such blotches of colour.’ However, upon discovering the truth, Dr Schneider said, ‘I did think it looked a bit rushed’. 

What do the critics really know? They know what they like. 

And that makes them no better than you or I. 

One last thing to note: I own a print by the renowned Turner Prize-winning British artist Grayson Perry. I bought it because I liked it. It cost me £30. Three years later I was lucky enough to find myself working with him. We got on well. So well, in fact, that I rather cheekily asked him if he’d sign my print, which he kindly did. ‘That’s the only copy of that print I’ve ever signed,’ he told me. ‘It’ll be worth a lot more now.’ Then he frowned and said, ‘And that’s what’s wrong with the whole art industry. All of the perceived value is in the signature, not the art. Its worth is only judged by how much it's worth.’ 

Grayson had much to say on this subject when he was invited to write and deliver the BBC’s 2013 Reith lectures (well worth a listen - click here) - and on the subject of a small elite controlling the industry: ‘Historically I think the art world has been fairly inward-looking because it can operate as a fairly closed circle. In many ways there are many artists who are very successful who don’t need the public at all. There’s a closed circle of the artist, the dealer, the collector. You don’t necessary need a wider audience. If there’s one message that I want these sort of lectures to carry, it is that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts – even me! An Essex transvestite potter, even I, the mafia has even let me in.’ 

What all of this demonstrates is something I firmly believe: 

There is no good art.  There is no bad art.  There is only art. 

Whether it’s a naïve wooden mask carved by an untrained tribesman, a massive steel installation created by a renowned sculptor, or a pencil drawing you’ve done of your dog, it’s all art. 

And it’s all equally valid.  

Monday, 13 December 2021

Monsters attack Bristol!

A couple of evenings ago I drove down to the westcountry for the private view of Grayson's Art Club - The Exhibition Part 2 at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

I'm not going to write too much here; I'm just going to post some pictures from the night. It was wonderful to chat to Grayson and Philippa but also to people like Martin Parr, Anneka Rice, Johnny Vegas and many of the artists featured on the show. Rumour has it that Banksy was among the crowd but, as half of them were masked, who knows?

(His original stencil for his artwork at Reading Gaol - featured on Art Club Series 2 episode 2 - was on display and he has since stated that he will auction it off as an original artwork and put the money towards turning the old prison into an arts centre. isn't that great?)

(Incidentally - sorry about my unkempt beard. I was doing a photographer friend a favour by posing as Father Christmas for some shoots at the time!)

Originally I was set to send four monsters to the exhibition. However, the organisers chose to use just one as part of a kind of 'treasure trail' that weaves through the museum, which is nice as I'm included among some VERY big names. But, more importantly, they also suggested setting up a rolling slide show of ALL the monsters built for the zoo too. So now every single child who contributed is represented there.

I think that's fantastic.
And then there's the art itself - diverse, creative, brilliant. Enjoy!

The last thing to mention is that, like the Series 1 exhibition in Manchester, they have produced a book/catalogue for the Series 2 collection and it's rather lovely to see that the Monster Zoo and I have been given four whole pages. Wow. That's humbling. 
What a fantastic thing to have been part of. And they announced this evening that Art Club is back in March for a third series.

Great news!

Friday, 3 December 2021

Painting techniques #1 - Grime

Here's an absolute masterclass in miniature painting techniques by the team at Laser Creation World. They take a standard VW camper model kit and turn it into an epic post-apocalyptic shelter through extraordinary detailing and use of paint. 

Watching these kinds of videos is how I've learned the techniques I use on my models. Learn from the best!

Saturday, 27 November 2021


There are a lot of different terms to get to grips with when you enter the world of modelling - scratchbuilding, upcycling, zenithal highlighting, drybrushing, trashbashing, objets trouvé, greeblies etc. On this blog we'll be looking at all of these terms and more. 

We've already seen some great examples of upcycling by Ptolemy Elrington and David Kemp. I will also mention Jessica Harrison who finds charity/thrift shop sculptures and turns them into horror figures or adds tattoos. And then there's the late Click Mort (Christopher Robert Doran) who became famous for his 'recapitated' charity shop figures, created by swapping heads and limbs. 

We've also explored trashbashing - making sculptures purely from garbage - with work by Studson Studios and Scratch Bashing

Incidentally, scratchbashing is a portmanteau word that describes the combination of two techniques: scratchbuilding - making something (usually something familiar like a lightsabre or famous spaceship) completely from scratch; and trashbashing which means making things entirely from garbage. Scratchbashing may involve using parts of existing toys, making new pieces from wood, plastic, metal or even 3D printing, as well as utilising throwaway rubbish. 

But today we're looking at kitbashing - using model kits in ways not originally intended. It goes beyond modification - such as the zombie apocalypse scenarios of Laser Creation World. It's much more than that. 

Here's a great example - Pete the Wargamer's beautifully-made Necrofex Colossus from the Total War: Warhammer computer game. It uses parts from model kits such as a shipwreck and a trebuchet to create something very different from either:

And here's SciFi Crafts kitbashing a standard F18 fighter jet kit into a spaceship:

Just to complicate matters, some sculptures may involve elements of kitbashing, trashbashing and scratch building ... 

But, at the end of the day it's the final piece that matters, not the methods used.

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Greeblies, Greebles and Nurnies

Whatever you choose to call them, greeblies, greebles or nurnies are an essential for the serious scratchbuilder and trash-basher. 

What are they?

They’re the hundreds of mechanical-looking parts that break up the surface of a model and give it the feeling of a real, working machine. According to Frank Burton, who was a department head on The Empire Strikes Back, 'Greeblie is a word George Lucas coined on Star Wars for something you can’t otherwise define.'

When you saw those huge star destroyers hove into view for the first time and marvelled at the surface detail, what you were actually looking at were thousands of pieces of rubbish and tiny parts cannibalised from model kits and stuck to the model's outer skin. Famously, the engine ports on Han Solo's Millennium Falcon are shovels from plastic bulldozer kits.

But, while Lucas might have given them a name, they predate Star Wars by at least a decade - certainly model-makers were using them in the late 1960s and early 70s on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and TV shows like Thunderbirds. In fact, one of the industry's most infamous greeblies can be seen in the underground (or under swimming pool) hangar of Thunderbird 1.

Yes, that is quite clearly a lemon juicer/squeezer on the wall.

But, bearing in mind that this was the Sixties, when the height of exotic foodstuffs was a Vesta dried curry in a box, how many viewers would have recognised it? And it does look like a huge extractor fan, which is, presumably, what it's meant to be as such a thing would be essential to clear the fumes after a launch. The use of greeblies like this marked the point when model makers began to shift away from the smooth and pointy rocket ships of the 1950s towards a more realistic style that emulates what real spaceships - like the Apollo command and lunar modules - look like. 

All of which brings us to another important point about greeblies - they aren't just random. The goal is to carefully choose and place pieces that imply some sort of function. 

'A lot of people really underestimate how much attention is paid when doing this,' explains Fon Davis, a retired model maker who worked on hundreds of films for the special effects company ILM (Industrial Light and Magic). 'It’s not a random collection of pieces – you’re actually trying to connect hoses to boxes to fans to vents to things that look like they’re serving a purpose. The other part of it is to make it look aesthetically pleasing, so one of the biggest mistakes you’ll see on relatively a low-budget movie made by people who are not professional model makers is, you can spot that they don’t put that thought into it.'

Incredibly, modern CGI artists still use greeblies - they've just scanned them from the model kits.

So there you have it. Greeblies, greebles, nurnies - call them what you will. But you can't ignore them. 

And here's Adam Savage to tell you all about greeblies and, in particular, the fabled 'universal greebly'. Enjoy.

Other source material here at Den of Geek.

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Great Upcyclers #2: David Kemp

I first became aware of Cornish artist David Kemp's work when visiting Hay's Galleria at London Bridge and seeing The Navigators. I took these photos at the time (you can see more, plus David's original sketches and designs here).
A short while later, and by complete coincidence, I saw some more of his work at the Eden Project in Cornwall. My brother, artist and photographer Si Colgan, showed them to me (along with some work he'd done there). 

'Actually I know David,' said Si. 'He has a studio on the cliff tops at Botallack and I'm planning to visit him soon to take some photos.' 

Before we see those photos, let me show you the kind of work that David has become quite rightly celebrated for. This is Old King Coal on the Sustrans railway path at Pelton Fell in County Durham.
The sculpture was built with the help of local volunteers and redundant miners and steelworkers and was completed the same day as the last colliery closed in County Durham. The materials used included a giant ventilation fan, miners' shovels and bricks from demolished steelworks. 

David was also commissioned by John Grimshaw, director and chief engineer of Sustrans, to build a series of milestone and landmark sculptures, using discarded materials found on nearby post-industrial sites. Among the other pieces David completed were a series of Easter Island-style giant heads made from old defunct electrical transformers and other scrap.
Another of his works is The Ancient Forester that stands in Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. he's made solely from wood found in the surrounding area. Well, apart from that massive axe head.
A personal favourite of mine is one of his smaller works. The Hounds of Geevor were made from redundant miners' boots from the last Cornish tin and copper mines to shut down. Several of them were cast in bronze and now stand as a monument in Redruth town centre, the capital of the old Cornish mining industry. They mark the demise of the industry.
But now, as promised, a peek inside David's studio, courtesy of my brother. David's studio is inside a cluster of old mine buildings on the northern coastal road between Penzance and St Ives. The cliffs here are peppered with the remains of long-dead mines and offer fantastic views out onto the turbulent ocean. Much of the Poldark TV series was filmed around there.
It's delicious chaos inside the studio with curious machines and strange pseudo-tribal masks everywhere you look.
'I make things out of things, big things, little things, old things and new things.' he explains on his website. 'I like to recycle things, and find new uses for things that have been thrown away. Some things say something about their surroundings, and other things become something else.' David is the absolute champion of this form of art and I could look at it all day. I do have a nice little book of his work that's worth getting hold of if you like it.
David's work is important because he memorialises dead industries and the lives of those who worked in them. The fact that he uses, as his raw materials, the very items that those people touched and worked with every day adds an extra layer of poignancy. He's a very gifted and important artist whose name should be better known. I'll leave you now with a few more examples of his work.
His website is here.