Market Day

My recent painting of a Shanghai alleyway was a quick dip back into painting after a long absence. After this I wanted to go back to my normal style; and to do a portrait. We’d seen some great imagery in the markets we’d visited so I decided to take inspiration from there.

Below are some pics from the traditional markets we visited on holiday in Dali and Kunming – we’ve seen several markets on our travels and these are representative – crowded, characterful places, with sellers almost outnumbering buyers.


There’s often a defined central structure with tables covered in produce which is surrounded by a undefined hotch-potch of other vendors offering a miscellany of items for sale; cages of ‘behead to order’ chickens; potatoes loose in flatbread trucks. Nearby two grubby men fed large green machines with sunflower seeds, which were crushed to fill great flagons of oil.

There were whole tables dedicated to eggs; fresh eggs (duck and chicken), preserved eggs which are kind of black and jellified, tea eggs and soy eggs, which are brown – also eggs which were stored in some kind of ashy crust – which looked a bit like a scotch egg but you wouldn’t want to eat the outer layer!.

Some tables were piled high with meat (unclear which animal and which bit of it you’re looking at) and fish, usually uncovered with a cloud of flies taking a close look. We walked around one market specifically for pets and flowers and saw boxes of fish, turtles, tortoises, puppies, rabbits, snakes, spiders, stag beetles (and sometimes huge open buckets of their feed – smaller insects writhing about).

Walking around your senses are pleasantly assaulted with plenty of smells and sights and the gentle push of the other shoppers. The ground crunches underfoot as you tread on discarded seeds, vegetables, egg shells – thrown into the walkways by stall-owners or spat out by people tasting the goods.

The thing that amazes about these markets is the sheer abundance of food – almost everything is stacked up in much greater quantities than you’d see in a busy UK supermarket. It can’t last all that long in the heat, so either the supply is great (at the moment) or the demand is great and the stuff shifts. It may well be a bit of both in Yunnan as it’s the agricultural hub of China and I saw plenty of people walking around with large wicker baskets on their backs full of corn, spring onions and massive courgette/marrows.

We get markets in Shanghai too, but they’re often indoors (called ‘Wet Markets’), aren’t quite as chaotic and usually somewhat cleaner than their countryside counterparts. I’d love to be able to shop there, but my Chinese isn’t good enough yet so I’m not yet able to guarantee I wouldn’t end up with several kilos of pig shins, a live hamster or a duck penis.

Anyway, back to the painting. I reverted back to my usual style. It’s largely a portrait of a smoking man, but I also tried to capture some of the character of the market around him.


I was keen not to distract too much from the central figure so tried to make the composition drive the viewer back to his face; on the left the lines that bring you down towards the watermelons stop by the man’s face, and on the right side most of the diagonals take you to something ‘off canvas’ to the right, which presumably the guy is looking at while he smokes his cigarette. This takes you back to his face again.

The background has a huge amount going on, so it was a challenge for me to keep it interesting without it becoming a distraction – this was made harder by the fact that I painted the background before the central figure and so wanted to put some interest in it. Initially there were more people in the background, but I decided to  take them out. I also dulled down the watermelons and dragonfruit in the centre as some of the bright colours dominated the veggies at the front a little too much. Another technique I tried – which i’ve not done before – was to blur the background using layers of washes (colours that you thin down with white spirit or oil and apply over another colour) – this worked quite well for the fabric netting in the top right.


For me the most fun bit was painting the guys face and I also enjoyed painting the surface of the trestle table behind him (meant to be blood soaked – I was going to put some pigs heads in but Em didn’t like the idea of raw meat being stored so close to fruit). The hardest parts were the sweetcorn and chillies; because of the slightly translucent, shiny coating, the light reacts differently on them so you get a kind of orange shadow, but I’m pleased with the end result.


– Matt

Still life in the fast lane


One of the most eagerly awaited packages in our sea freight was my box of painting stuff. If you don’t know me all that well, my primary non-alcoholic interest is painting – so the first thing I did when all our boxes arrive was crack open a bottle of wine. The second thing I did was set up my easel.

Because my paintings can take me a long time (months; years) , it’s important to carefully consider the subject matter. I’d just completed a landscape of Scotland which took a long long long time to finish, so didn’t fancy another marathon landscape. I have been keen to get back into portrait painting but hadn’t been overly inspired by any faces yet. Instead, I decided to try and capture an atypical element of the city. Typical Shanghai images are of the Bund or the skyline containing the Pearl tower. They’re pretty, but ubiquitous.

One of my little pleasures has been to wander off around the Puxi districts exploring some of the side streets. One of the most curious aspects I’ve found has been the contrast between adjacent neighbourhoods, some of which consist solely of giant skyscrapers of glass and steel and others which are small cramped residential warrens. Though these little residential ‘lanes’ aren’t exactly historic, they are more traditional Shanghai; and typically it is these areas that get flattened to make way for the modern malls and apartment blocks.

The lanes are fascinating. They seem to almost always feature clothes drying from suspended hangers, people washing in outdoor sinks or sat on tiny plastic chairs playing cards. They’re almost always strewn with something; litter, scooters, animals, stacks of cardboard or plastic. Occasionally people set up a few tables and chairs and sell food to passersby. When you take a stroll down one of these lanes, you often experience a number of unusual smells, sounds and sights.The last time I walked through one, the back of my throat hurt with all the chilli in the air from the cooking. I imagine it like a bee-hive; people will emerge from the tiny ‘lane houses’to undertake a bit of frenetic activity in the street, and poke their heads out of windows and doors to partake in animated conversations with their neighbours. Sometimes these dwellings consist of only 1 room; which is astounding given some of the wealth and prosperity you will see in adjacent neighbourhoods (or even adjacent streets!). Given the possibility that these areas will make way for more gentrified buildings, I thought it would be appropriate to make it my first painting.

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To get back into the swing of things, I chose to take a departure from my usual painstaking approach to constructing a painting. Normally with these lanes, you’re walking through or past them rather than taking time to soak it in so I wanted to try and represent the essence, not the detail. I also wanted to reflect some of the charming griminess that many of the lanes seem to have.  I didn’t think I could capture the human element at the same time, so I chose not to include any people in it. I’ve got plenty of time to do some character studies. The finished painting is below.


It didn’t take a huge amount of time to do – around 4 hours i’d say in total. It’s painted with oil paint on canvas and I tried to use a limited colour palette; there are only 2 reds, 2 yellows, black, white, a tiny bit of blue and a brown called ‘Burnt Sienna’. Almost all of it I did with a palette knife (a type of blade used for mixing and spreading paint that you can get in various shapes). One of the characteristics of oil paints is that they don’t dry very quickly at all. This is very unhelpful if you ever drop a wet painting (the same physics that apply to buttered toast apply here too), but it is very helpful if you want to mix and blend paints while on the canvas. This can produce the kind of effect I achieved in the central pathway- where you have separate colours that are blend unevenly across a surface and give the impression of multiple shades of colours.

Palette knives are also great for creating texture. You can apply paint and then scratch it off in parts to reveal the white underneath, or to reveal the grainy texture of the canvas. This was useful when trying to differentiate between one surface and another, and was particularly helpful when creating the bricked areas. With a picture like this, where the composition relies heavily on perspective created by having straight lines disappearing into the central area, getting the lines right can be very important. Bricks are a challenge, because you need to deal with vertical and horizontal lines across 3 dimensions, as well as having to make them look bricky. I found that I could ‘cut’ the bricks into the picture by loading the knife up with paint and chopping in to create the desired impression. Much easier and much more effective, as the illusion of depth is maintained.

My other aim was to create some interest at the focal point (the end of the lane). I tried to do this by just contrasting some black and white to represent the extremes of light. There are hints of some ‘stuff’ towards the further recesses, but I put a bit of detail into the bike as one of the handful of elements you’d have time to notice if you only glanced up the lane.

My next picture is more in line with my usual style (painstakingly detailed) so it’ll be a few more weeks until i can post about it but I will do so once it’s done 🙂

– Matt