Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Unusual Views of Istanbul

As the cold weather bites and the gas bills start to come in the builders get to work. 

First of all piles of hard sponge boards start appearing on street corners close to older buildings. Soon after piles of scaffolding appear and within days spindley structures of thin metal piping clad the outside of buildings. 

Trapeze artist like builders wander gingerly around on narrow planks of wood fixing the insulation boards to the outside of the building. We look aghast wondering how middle aged 'göbekli' (pot bellied) men can manage such work at five storeys up. So I thought I'd paint some of their scaffolding pipes in sympathy and be thankful I have other ways to make a living....

Watercolour on 600 gm paper.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

From Kariye to Balat

Untitled - watercolour on 450gm paper

Balat is an amazing part of the city.

For those of you unfamiliar with the city of Istanbul, in the northern corner of the old city right next to the ancient walls there are the remains of one of the last secular Byzantine buildings still in existence. It's the old palace of the failing dynasty finally defeated by the Turks in 1453. Apparently over the centuries it has been used amongst other things as a zoo and a brothel although now it is being restored.

As one walks from that corner through the steeply winding cobbled streets between narrow houses punctuated with old crumbling ruins and mosques one walks through the district of Balat.

This area has been the haunt of Armenians, Jews and Greeks for centuries. One wonders if it is becoming gentrified by those wise enough to recognise the romantic quality of this quarter of the city.

Despite this there remains a surprising number of crumbling old Ottoman style wooden houses. Every now and again one can see what looks suspiciously like a Byzantine church disguised as a mosque or some abandoned orthodox church hidden behind over-grown trees and ivy.

Recently whist doing this walk we ended up at the  Zeyrek Mosque (Pantokrator Monastery 12th century) which is being restored and where a wonderful view point has been constructed. It overlooks a breathtaking 180 degree vista of the city from the tower blocks of Maslak to the minarets of the Blue Mosque.

As for the painting - Balat inspired pile of scaffolding poles.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Exhibitions, flattery and ingenuity

Untitled - Watercolour on 450gm paper

Setting up an exhibition with other artists can be a great levelling experience. Of course there are the exhibitions where one's work is delivered and all that's required is just call to check the works arrived as planned, I don't get that opportunity too often.

Usually I have to start off by wondering how I'm going to get a pile of framed watercolour pictures (with glass) over to a venue. Usually I call a taxi to help as it's inconceivable for such a task to be done on an Istanbul minibus (my preferred mode of transport - I use the word 'preferred' purely comparatively).

When the taxi driver and I have covered the obligatory topics of politics, religion and football we usually come onto the topic of my being an artist. This can end with a request for me to give him one of my paintings. 

I'm usually flattered, it's better than not being asked. However, there's an awkward truth that, well, I'm probably not going to give an original to a complete stranger, unless he or she is very influential! I guess he wouldn't give me his vehicle if I asked, but he wouldn't see the comparison. 

Thankfully in true Turkish style a hearty slap on the back (dangerous when in a taxi) and something like 'Of course, give me a call sometime', usually suffices and I never hear anything from the said taxi driver ever again. This also reveals the sincerity of the request for the painting to start with.

Setting up at the kind of venues we exhibit at is rarely simple. They are sometimes beautiful Ottoman palaces, or galleries that are often multi-purpose. When well lit and well set up these venues are georgeous to exhibit in.  

They do however, require ingenuity, a tool box and a lot of energy and patience to set up. One can't drill holes into the walls of national treasure, so one has to use elaborate networks of fishing line, existing appendages and anything else to position works.

At the last exhibition we did few of the participating artists and I spent a while putting together twenty easels on which to place our works. It was hilarious watching us all try and piece together the wooden structures and then take them apart again and erect them properly.

I'll stop there, lots more to say on this topic.

Watch out for 'Exibitions and managing egos' in my next post.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Ordinary Men

The 'Sanayi' as they call it is a huge area devoted to mechanics, car maintenance, car body repairs and various shops supplying their needs. It's a warren of dark narrow roads flanked by hundreds of garages and shop fronts with cars in all states of repairs littering the streets.

The already busy streets of the city are complicated further here with not just busy car drivers going about their business, but with the detritus of the awesome automobile culture of the city blocking the roads and obstructing the thoroughfares. Often unexpectedly great flashes of light leap out of dark corners as welders go about their business.

Added to all this is the call to prayer. Contrary to our western images of Islam as, at best, an 'oriental' faith rooted in the medieval past, here it is a living part of the lives of very ordinary men. So welders, mechanics, car electonics experts and fixers of every type down tools for the 'Ezan' or call to prayer five times a day.

In the West religion is often portrayed as the sentimental occupation of those in need of a crutch, here to many, faith is the staff of life, an ingrained habit around which one hangs one's family, work and very existence. Emotion doesn't have to come into it because,  as they say,  life is an exam, don't complain just get on with it.

Screwdrivers Watercolour on paper.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Istanbul remains a confusing city. 

Take parking for example. As the city grows, as the number of cars increases, and of course as the traffic jams get worse, one can't help but notice that although there are probably enough roads in the city, there isn't enough parking. Added to this is the habit that I've never really understood of people to park in the most bizarre places, just adding to the traffic chaos.

Talking to a guy fishing on the Galata Bridge just this past week, I asked him how he came into town. He pointed to his car which was parked behind him on the road, on the bridge, under a no parking or no stopping sign. He wasn't obstructing anything and I suppose he wasn't doing any harm, but the simple audacity of it made me smile. Why not drive to the centre of one of the oldest cities on earth and park one's car next to where the fishing is best?

Parking on the Galata Bridge which crosses the historic Golden Horn is like parking on Tower Bridge in London, it's like parking on the Pont Neuf in Paris!

The fisherman smiled and said 'bir şey olmaz' (nothing will happen) and we carried on enjoying the Bosphorus in all its autumn glory.

Watercolour on paper. - Byzantine Electric Metre

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Back in the Traffic

Whilst still pondering the sobering works I saw at Dismaland a few weeks ago I start off what for me is a new season with an engine.

When I first came to this huge city a friend of mine talked about how it's weird to think that most of the oxygen we're breathing here has already been inhaled multiple times by an internal combustion engine.

I hope that people sense irony when they look at this painting. The landscape of this city is moulded by the motor car so I thought I'd paint it, I mean paint the creator of the landscape.

I suppose a hundred and fifty years ago in European cities horses would have been everywhere. The roads would have been blocked by them, their waste products would be piling up in the streets, their housing and storage for their fuel would be big business. The numbers employed to maintain and service horse powered transport would have been vast.

So, we shouldn't be too upset if our our present favoured transport equivalent takes up a lot of room, oxygen and as for its waste products, we breathe it in!

People like painting horses but personally a rusting relic of our obsession with the motor car is to me more relevant and urgent than horses crashing through surf ( a favoured subject for painters).

Watercolour on Paper

Monday, August 24, 2015

Banksy's Dismaland

Entering Dismaland involved being questioned by very grumpy security guard who told you to look into a CCTV camera and asked a set of random questions. I was asked what flavour of crisps (chips) I'd just been eating! The staff are delightfully obnoxious, all part of Banksy's elaborate critique of modern Britain.

Once inside the outdoor area (which I once remembered going to as a child to swim) one is met with the cheesiest of piped music, rude annoucenments made in that 'Barbie voice' we are all familiar with and a scene of chaos and anarchy. 

There is much that could be said about the work exhibited here but I'll limit it to the following:

  • Protest is refreshing especially when it's witty, clever and incisive. Much of the work here was exactly that.
  • Much of the work was commenting on environmental issues and also critiqing neo-liberal politics which have dominated in the last 30 years. These were engaging and fun for all ages!  
Josh Keyes' paintings were a fascinating medley of modern images of apocalyptic doom and traditional horror motifs.

Banksy's refugee filled model boats bobbing around a small boating pool flanked by models of the white cliffs of Dover were a chilling comment on events unfolding in the news.

Jimmy Cauty followed in a similar vein with his vision of urban civil unrest depicted in a vast model landscape.

Jeff Gillette's haunting paintings of decaying funfares mixed technicolor Disney style landscapes of mounds of detritus.

I thoroughly recommend the trip to Weston-s-Mare to see this show. Part of the fun of all this is to imagine the great and good of the art industry making their way to this small seaside town, not the usual hangout.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Do you want to know the best time to eat fish here in Istanbul?

The best time to eat fish here is in September. I'll tell you why.

The fish feast on the plankton in the warm summer months which thrive in the warm waters about the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. They grow fat and juicy.

As the water starts to cool down towards October and beyond the fish begin to use up their fat reserves to stay warm, which means they become less juicy and thus less tasty.

I learnt that shell fish which live in the sands round the coast filter the water and so clean it! I also learnt  that  dolphins apparently delibaretely harm the fisherman's nets (?).

I was also given a couple of crabs to take home and cook, they were good, although I could probably have done with a few more.

It's amazing what you can learn hanging out with a few fisherman. They gave us the freedom of the quayside to clamber over boats and take photos. Turkish warmth and hospitality strikes again.

On a beautiful summer's day, heading out from Istanbul and taking the coast road is a wonderful way to take a day off from the usual grind. As always the most exciting thing about living in a different culture, when you've seen all the sights and sampled all the food, is to journey into the human spirit. 

Long talks with fishermen, and chats with friendly passers by deepen and broaden the cultural collage one is forming in one's head as time passes. The fascinating differences we stumble across and the knowledge that we all share common struggles and frustrations is a lesson in being truly human.

As for the painting, well there comes a time when you have to just finish the work and put it out there even though it's not as you'd have wanted it to be. It will be on my website emacdonaldwatercolours.com

Please feel free to purchase this picture and anything else you see on my website. Who needs a landscape when you could have a rusty hook?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Five Questions for those who know better than I do...

Watercolour on 400 gm paper
1. How do you avoid chaos (tubes everywhere, paint brushes disappearing, piles of tissue paper mounting up around your stool) when you're in the 'zone' and are single mindedly focussed on the creative task...

2. How do you stop small shavings of dried masking fluid which you've rubbed off paper getting everywhere, under the paper, landing in your palette and generally littering your work space.

3. How do you decide how big to make a picture?

4. How do you deal with that moment when you know that a picture you've been working on could possibly work, but you're not sure if you have the time or energy to push it through to completion, knowing there's a strong possibility it could end up a 'dud'?

5. How do you take a break from the creative process?

Please let me know your thoughts....

Monday, May 25, 2015

Spring Fever

Yet again it's election season here in Istanbul. Last summer there was the Presidential election and the local government elections, this year it's the what I suppose we'd call the national assembly elections. The streets are adorned with bunting and huge flags are hanging everywhere. There are the big parties, just a few, and then a multitude of smaller ones all competing for our attention. 

The lavishly amplified marshall sounding music and the rousing emotional appeals to patriotism blaring out of  various election leafleting tents make a simple trip to the ferry a memorable event. The  flyers are beginning to appear on our doorsteps and I expect we'll get a visit from local parties canvassing for support soon. This is always a trifle embarrassing as although we speak the language it's fairly obvious we're foreigners and as a result are not going to win them any votes I hate wasting people's time!

It will be all over in June, summer's coming. My artists friends are already beginning to drift away for the holiday months. Ramadam will fall in June this year and will be a trial for my devout friends, the days will be long and hot. Kolay Gelsin (may it come easy) !

Watercolour on Paper, Joseph's Tools II

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Istanbul through Young Eyes - in the steps of Ara Güler

Cleaning shoes in Election season - by a young Turkish photographer
How can we affirm the delicate buds of artistic invention as they emerge in young people? 

How can we provide a platform for the sometimes startling perspectives of unknown kids in unknown places?

For the last three years we’ve been working to bring young people on the Asian side of Istanbul together with international kids from very different backgrounds and get them working together. We’ve painted walls, we’ve created sculptures from waste products, the kids have learnt some English, added to all this every year we hold our Inter Schools Photography Competition. 

For the Competition we hand out disposable Kodak cameras (the ones with film) to students from a few different schools in the area and give the kids three weeks to go off and use up the film on a particular theme. 

We have to explain repeatedly (in two languages!) to the puzzled kids that there are only 28 chances to get a shot from a film camera, and that no, you can't think of it as a camera on your phone that gives you limitless opportunities to take photos.

We also have to emphasise that it's important to avoid putting one's finger over the small lens. No doubt we'll get the usual crop of potentially great shots with huge blurry fingers obscuring things, but thankfully they are in a minority.

We then have to explain, what for modern kids must be the strangest thing of all, that we have to get the films developed!! How weird is that? After holding a small exhibition we have our annual prize giving. I'm pleased to say that over the years this activity has really encouraged some young people to pursue their creative side.

The results have been amazing over the last three years, in fact they have been so good we decided to publish the best work in a book complete with the reflections of the young artists who took them. Watch this space for more information.

I'm delighted to see some pictures emerge from our kids that reminded me of that genius of Turkish Photography Ara Guler, take a look.

Back to painting for me....

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Axeman

My grandfather was born in 1901. Looking back it seemed to have been an interesting time to have been alive. His was the generation for whom world changing ideologies promised the fulfilment of utopian dreams. He dabbled in communism and had a thirst for adventure.

For me as a child what was most important was that he had a great tool shed. 

By the time my brother and I arrived on the scene my retired grandfather would potter around his garden in a small semi-detached house in Swindon in the south west of the UK, an industrial town he'd moved his family to during World War II.

I remember spending hours in his tool shed where there'd be numerous half completed woodwork projects. They weren't really DIY projects, my grandfather was a man who'd spent his life applying his intellect and creativity to practical engineering projects, he'd worked with iron and steel, for him wood was a soft option! One didn't see mass produced tools in his shed, he'd made most of them with his own hands.

Piles of well used old tools are pregnant with memories for me. I remember aspiring to my grandfather's brand of gentle, patient masculinity. His eyes had seen many things some of which he would never speak.

The picture here is from the workshop of a blacksmith on the Black Sea coast.

The Axeman - Pure watercolour on 600 gm paper - if you like it tell me, or subscribe to my newsletter.
Contact me on emacdonaldwatercolours@gmail.com

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Joseph's Tools

Joseph's Tools Watercolour on 600gm Paper

The view was stunning. The Black Sea shone blue and vibrant in the spring sunshine. We were surrounded by lush green hills and gentle forest which sloped steeply down to the water's edge. We were being shown an old disused cable car which was now perched half way down the sheer wooded hillside lodged between trees and shrubs still clasping its rusting cables. In days gone by it had served a mining village with a population of twenty thousand, the cable car had taken bathers down the steep slope to the beach below. Close to the now rusting remnants of the winch at the top we sat and talked in the sunshine and the villagers remembered the old days and how vibrant the village had been. 

Before we ended our short trip to the Black Sea and headed back to the big city we swung by Joseph's workshop. He'd been hosting us since our arrival in the village tea room just the day before. His workshop was a treasure trove of old weather beaten tools ripened by age. Without touching anything I wandered around taking in the sights, textures and memories that only workshops can preserve. Joseph watched somewhat bemused at the delight his everyday surroundings prompted in me. He had other plans, there was tea to be drunk and friends he wanted to introduce us to! He was was typical of so many of his countrymen, lavishly hospitable, a lover of conversation and possessing an ability to drink countless servings of dark black tea which left my head spinning.

Pure Watercolour on 600 gm paper.

For sale, email me on emacdonaldwatercolours@gmail.com for a price.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Unfinished Mammoths

I passed this rusting hulk on my may alongside the Black Sea this week. This container ship was evidently abandoned before being finished and has been sitting rusting away until someone starts the mammoth task of dismantling. 

Failing to finish work that has been started is a recurring theme in my work at the moment and something that will be remedied very soon.

In case I've not mentioned it, my work is for sale visit my website:

Below is another work in progress....

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Another work in progress...

Painting is hard work. It's a labour of the spirit, the mind and the body. One can also rarely be sure of how things are going to work out, for me an investment of time and materials in projects that for unforeseable reasons don't work out is frustrating and time consuming.

That has been the story of the last few months. I know most of my readers are not sitting with their lives on hold, with white knuckled anticipation awaiting my latest post, but all the same I like to be working and producing more than I have been able to do recently. Plus I need to sell!

There have been some high profile exhibitions (even if one particular painting that was chosen wasn't my favourite) and quite a lot of travelling, but all the same the 'bread and butter' of creating has been a start-stop affair.

This is my latest work in progress, let's hope it 'flowers' soon. It will be obvious what it is in time.... 


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Royal Watercolour Society Exhibition and the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours Exhibition 2015

Just to mention my work is appearing in the following exhibitions this month:

Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours 203rd Exhibition, 25 March to 11 April 2015, Mall Galleries, London UK.

Royal Watercolour Society Contemporary Watercolour Exhibition 6-18th March 2015, Bankside Gallery, London UK.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Hawks, tea, twists and turns....

"Birds of prey! Yes I kid you not, there were birds of prey perched on a rail erected on the wall of the Kahve (Turkish tea house)" my foreign teacher friend didn't believe me. I'd had to take a few paces back to take another look and sure enough, there were two or three what turned out to be hawks sitting on the perch no doubt inhaling a fair amount of the tobacco smoke rising from the small tables below. 

I returned a few months later when I had a little more time to see if they were still there. Alas they were not but the white stains on the wall where the birds had been suggested that I had not been hallucinating. The irrepressible inquisitiveness and hospitality of the clientele sitting around sipping tea and smoking lead to me to sit down and share a chay and a conversation. 

"So where are the birds?" I asked. Three middle aged men excitedly told me about the traditional sport of hawking that existed up on the Black Sea. All these men were from that part of the country. Just to prove that the smart phone is now ubiquitous in all walks and generations of Turkish society they produced their samsungs and started to skim through scores of photographs of their hawking antics back in the "köy" (their home villages in the lush green mountains of the Black Sea). 

We spent a good hour or so chatting, laughing and learning from one another. They were all retired but looked barely over fifty to me. One had been a 'gemici' (sailor), typical of his generation he'd sailed the world and seen it from the side that makes 'Lonely Planet' look beourgeois. 

There's travelling, and then there's discovering culture. The two are different and the latter so much more interesting. The exploration of human lives and their twists and turns is a journey that never fails to surprise and delight.

Oil can in Delhi - watercolour on paper

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Work in Progress

It's been a very busy first month of the year. Painting has been sidelined up until now but life is calming down a little and creative space is appearing again.

I'm pleased to have had one picture accepted by the English Royal Watercolour Society's open exhibition in March. At the same time another picture has been accepted by the Royal Institute for Painters in Watercolour, I suppose it's like waiting for a bus, you wait for ages and two come at once. I will also have four pictures exhibited at Artquake Kyoto - Japan in March.

Painting a picture takes me considerably longer than it used to. As my technique develops I've had to slow down a lot and I feel like I spend a lot of time waiting for things to dry (especially in the winter!).

So in order to make up for my lack of posts, I've decided to start posting works in progress and will hopefully chronicle my particular creative path.

So this below is my latest attempt after some drawing, a few washes and quite a lot of masking fluid.... (it's not finished yet.. there's a long way to go).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Waiting for the Ferry

"Real Muslims don't celebrate New Year" read the sign. On the other hand a good friend of my wife who is a comitted conservative Muslim proudly posted on her Facebook page a picture of a Christmas tree right next to a drinks cabinet loaded with booze. The new shopping malls that are popping up all over the city at the moment were laden with decorations and trees and piped carols as the season progressed. Another facebook post talked about how the origin of Christmas trees was some ancient Turkic belief in the tree of life. Suffice to say, it all feels like a post-modern globalised smorgasboard of cultural confusion. One can't help thinking it's all to the benefit of the transnational corporations that are unwittingly turning our world into grey conformity, but to say so feels puritanical (the most grievous of sins in the modern world!).

One sometimes tries to explain that as a Brit, Christmas is something that falls on the 25th December, New Year is a different festival that falls on the 1st January. We give presents for Christmas and make resolutions for New Year, we eat Turkey at Christmas and not at New Year. But the truth is that no one culture owns or defines what should happen at this time of year, so I guess that if some Muslims in Turkey quite like the idea of celebrating with trees and presents, at this time of year who is to say they can't. As we all know these ancient festivals have often been co-opted to assist different cultures to adapt to one or another religious belief system from time to time.

Happy New year.  

Watercolour on paper

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