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( My Massacre of the Innocents.  Oil on canvas.  34” x 29” )

Over a year ago I began working on my own version of a painting by Nicholas Poussin, the Massacre of the Innocents which he painted between 1625 and 1631.

It is a complex painting, a riot of shapes and of colours and it is perhaps the opposite of the still, calm, controlled paintings that I usually make. If they are three minute pop songs then this beast is an opera.

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( Nicholas Poussin.   The Massacre of the Innocents.   58″ x 67″  1625-1632 )

Cezanne wanted to do Poussin again from nature and I have always wanted to get under the skin of one of Poussin’s paintings to better understand his composition.

I also have enormous respect for Euan Uglow’s work. Between 1979 and 1981 Uglow had made his own copy of the Massacre of the Innocents. I thought it would be interesting to walk in both Nicholas Poussin and Euan Uglow’s footsteps. I deliberately didn’t look at Uglow’s version during all of the time that I was wrestling with Poussin. Only now that I have finished am I comparing Uglow’s painting to my own, seeing how he dealt with exactly the same problems that I have had to resolve.

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(Euan Uglow.  Massacre of the Innocents, after Poussin. 16 1/2 ” x  19 1/4 “)

I worked on my painting for three months but it was not resolved. I did like bits of my painting; the economy with which I described the soldier’s red cloak and the baby who is about to be murdered (he looks like Ian Hislop) but I didn’t ever feel that I had brought everything together, my colours didn’t belong together as though they were lit by the same sun. In March 2018 I put the painting aside.

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For the next nine months the unfinished canvas… gestated as it leaned against a wall in my studio.

It took a while to work out that the problem I had with the painting, and the reason that I put it aside, was an existential one; more to do with the nature of the task than a technical problem. I had not had a clear idea of what it was that I had been trying to achieve.

I have never seen the original painting. I had been working from a photograph, a good photograph but less than half of the size of my canvas and a photograph, any photograph, is a distortion or a part of the truth.

Was I trying to copy a photograph ?

A part of the right hand side of the original painting looks as though it might have been damaged because the colour seemed to have leeched out.

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Why would I faithfully reproduce damage on the original painting ?

Or, should I be trying to recreate whatever I imagined Poussin’s original painting probably looked like?

Or should I be using the original painting as I would use a still life and constructing his objects in my own painting ?

During the dead days between Christmas and the New Year I began again and I promised myself that I would spend only one last month working on the painting

It is as if a skin forms and I have to break through an imaginary varnish. I find it hard to begin working on a painting after an interval. I always go back to drawing when a painting gets lost. When I’m drawing I’m trying to simplify and understand how it all fits together, as much in my head as on the canvas. I redrew the objects and relationships across the canvas.

In photographs the pillars on the left of the original painting are so dark that I could not quite work out what was going on. I finally found this etching, an old copy of the painting, which helped.

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I wrote about my lack of and then slow progress on my Facebook Group (RussellDoreysStudio) and in response to one post a couple of people commented that it wasn’t really their kind of thing. It takes a comment like that to remind me how little I notice the subject of a painting. I had worked on this Massacre of the Innocentsfor weeks before, one evening, after a long days painting, I stepped back and thought with surprise what an awful thing to do to a baby! It might seem unlikely but when I’m working I’m looking at line, colour and tone, volume and space, harmonies and contrasts.

and now i’ll have to sell the damn thing !




My father wrote a lot of letters to politicians and to the press.

In these letters he would rant about a number of diverse issues, so his letters were not always succinct.

I think that he wrote so many letters about the many subjects that exercised him that he may have relied upon the text of an occasional reply to remind him of the subject of his original letter.

Winston Churchill did reply but my father could never remember what his original letter had been about.

It must have been a rambling letter because Churchill’s reply was succinct:

“Dear Mr Dorey, I could not have failed to have disagreed with you less”

I’m working on a half a dozen paintings and my friend Peter recently asked why I’m having trouble finishing anything.

It isn’t, as he supposed, that I don’t know when a painting is finished. I’m reminded of my father’s letter writing in that there is there is a similar lack of focus so the work is confused and I’m a dog chasing his own tail.

Painting is not mindless copying; colours change throughout the day as the light alters so a painting is a synthesis and a contrivance. I have to decide what I want to say or to build and then to organize everything I put on the canvas to support that.

Colours and tone and line are like the words and grammar in a poem that should rhyme or clash and flow or jar.

One has to establish contrasts of light and dark and warm and cool and to place colours so that they reinforce each other. This is an early stage of one of the paintings I have been working on. I’ve decided that the light from the left is cool and so the wall on the right is warmer. The darker ‘greys’ of the photograph have violet in them whilst the back of the box has a bit of yellow in it but sometimes I look too hard, I find to much nuance in colour and tone and I alter colours pursuing the light as it changes … like a dog chasing his tail.

The photograph that I used in this still life and to which the painting owes so much is by Eric Kellerman, an English photographer who has lived for decades in Holland.



Someone wrote in my Facebook group (Russell dorey’s studio):

“I’ve seen somewhere a piece of your work including a pair of spectacles. Would you ever use the same ‘prop’ twice?”

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( Only a heap of broken images. 32″ x 38″ cay 569 )

Yes. I would and I do. I’m like a dog with a bone when I find a new object. Nearly ten years ago I started to need glasses and I liked these because the wire frames already look as though they are a line drawing, and they only cost 99p from ESK in Hastings. I bought a handful at a time and had a drawer full of glasses. Then I used them in at least half a dozen paintings where they often appeared with the blue cup (although rumors of a relationship, of anything beyond a strictly professional coupling were denied)

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I’ve always kept a cast of objects to use as characters in Still Lives but I’ve tried not to allow myself to repeat the same idea so that it becomes a gimmick.

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( The cry of the Commuter. 12″ x 16″  cat 635 )

However, just a couple of years ago someone wanted a painting that I had already sold and I suggested that I make her, not a copy, but another version. It took me weeks, was difficult but I found that in attempting another version of a painting I was not repeating myself. I discovered that it was a new discipline.

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( Sassoferrato’s Virgin.  14″ x 14″  cat 579 )

After that I allowed myself to make versions of The Blue Cup and The Tape Measure painting.



( Screaming Woman. 10″ x 12″  cat 657 )



When I was younger, so much younger than today I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But now these days are gone and I’m not so self assured…

I’ve been looking at this painting. I wrote a post about it when it was finished some months ago, but I’ve already finished it so many times.

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(SOUVENIR DE PARIS oil on canvas. 24″ x 28″)

There was a story that went with the painting: That almost nine years ago I was in Paris sleeping in Patti Smith’s bed (she wasn’t in it and anyway that’s another story).
I used a primitive phone to take a photograph of this female torso; a Greek or Roman sculpture in the Musee Rodin. When I had the photograph printed the colours were quite distorted towards violet and greens but I liked the image and so I used the print as a part of a still life beside an enamel jug and some other objects.
Although I don’t give up easily I could not make the painting work so eventually the canvas joined the pile of other unresolved paintings in a corner of my studio.
I hauled it out every year or so, put it onto an easel, wondered what to do with it and then put it away again, until last year when I stripped almost everything away. I carefully painted out everything apart from the photograph taped to the wall, the light across the shelf and the wall. Then the canvas went back to wait in the unresolved stack.

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(stripped down state)

It might have been last Christmas that my daughter’s endless dredging of local charity shops dragged a small turquoise 1950’s (?) vase into the light. The colour seems to work nicely with the curious distorted colours of the photograph and the shape of the neck of the vase fits nicely against the hip and leg of the figure. I tried to add a tall Chinese lemon yellow vase… but that wouldn’t settle so I took that out again and replaced it with small enigmatic boxes.

This is an odd business; painting and being an artist. I choose what it is that I do and how I’m going to do it. I create my own language and grammar and I’m my only judge.

My paintings are poems. I put shapes and colours and images together and I don’t have to know what a painting means but I do have to believe it.

I used to be able to place objects and shapes and colours into compositions so that they belonged. I can’t always describe what it was but I was confident and I could do it. It was something like being able to juggle (although I have never been able to juggle).

Now I almost wish that I hadn’t taken a photograph of the painting last year. I do like the turquoise vase against the torso but… but I’m not convinced. I think I’m going to have to take out the vase and the boxes, to scrape down the surface and try to take the painting back to it’s stripped down state.

I recently heard the author Madeline Miller on Radio 4 talking about her novel ‘The Song of Achilles’. It was about to be published when she decided that the whole book had to be rewritten. Similarly I’m trying to convince myself that this return to an earlier state is not days of work wasted but is a sort of progress; that if I’ve worked another twenty hours on a painting I will better understand the painting even if it looks the same as it did a year ago.

I did made a small painting of the turquoise vase with the boxes.

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(Larger Turquoise Pot with Boxes. 16”x18” cat 660)



It’s still the afternoon of day one and I’m still in Cezanne’s beautiful studio at Les Lauves.

I am jealous of that studio.

A little French woman insisted on breaking into my reverie giving a terrible talk in not very good English.

There were some interesting facts and some of it was rubbish but some of it was just … French. Is it a peculiarity of the French to insist on a symbolic meaning for everything?

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The three human skulls that Cezanne painted are still sitting in his studio and she explained that for Cezanne they signified mortality. She said that when he painted apples they signified life, and that the candle in a candlestick signified the passage of time; alight it signified life and extinguished it signified death.

Save me !

I buttoned my lip but got to the point where if she had said ‘signified’ one more time I would have had to tell her, politely, that she was just being very silly.


Cezanne’s skulls are symmetrical and complex subtle forms, they’re perfect objects to draw and to paint. Apples are bright coloured spheres and the candlestick is a useful vertical in a composition. People get it very wrong when they try to impose meanings onto Cezanne’s paintings. We are more used and more comfortable with words than pictures and so we want everything translated into words. They can help you to approach a painting but the point of a painting is that it is itself; a discussion about something with line tone and colour as the grammar and vocabulary.

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I remember similar nonsense in the catalogue for the Cezanne portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Whoever wrote it was ladling on meaning with a trowel; it went on about how Mme Cezanne’s expression hovered somewhere between a smile and … some other emotion, as though, being a good painter he was also able to peer into peoples souls which is, I believe, rubbish. Cezanne was socially hopeless.


Zola said (and this may have been early in his career) that Cezanne did most of the actual painting when the sitter had left because the presence of an actual person distracted him, he just mostly looked and made colour notes while the sitter was there.


When he painted his wife he was using a figure to build a composition. He was interested in her head as an object, but he wasn’t much interested in her expression and certainly not interested in capturing or conjuring an emotion, but a face has to have a mouth so he made a mark.




Ten minutes before Cezanne’s Studio reopened after lunch I was waiting on the road outside.

Cezanne had his studio built on the hill, LES LAUVES, north of the town in 1901. The studio was then the only building beside the track that is now a busy road with houses and flats along it as Aix has grown.


He had a farmhouse, a Bastide, knocked down, kept the cellars, and built his studio upon them.

I visited the studio about 25 years ago and in the intervening quarter of a century I have changed more than it has, but I didn’t realize then quite how perfect a studio it is.



In 1955 or 56 there was a famous bitter winter referred to as Le grand hiver or le grand gelé. The cold killed most of the olive trees that carpeted Provence. In place of the olives there are now mostly Mediterranean pine that are much taller. Cezanne’s studio at les Lauves was originally surrounded by low olive trees. He would have looked out of his studio over the olives towards the town and nothing would have blocked the light from the north.

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The courtyard is now shaded under pines (it’s the English Provencal fantasy and you half expect a hunchback Depardieu to greet you).


This time they let me in.

The studio is on the first floor and I walked up the stairs which Cezanne walked, trod on the same carrelage with my hand on the same wooden bannister rail and turned the doorknob to open the door to his studio as he would have done.

This must seem a bit over the top but it is the closest I’m going to get to meeting the man who made me a painter and who has been my guide and example since I was ninenteen years old.

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His studio is almost eight meters square and five high. There is a very huge window on the north side and two windows on the southern side, which have shutters both on the outside and on the inside to stop any light penetrating. Northern light is even throughout the day but light from the south pours in through the windows bleaching out everything so you can’t see what you’re painting.


Cezanne mixed his own colour for the walls; black, white and a bit of ochre and red etc. He made a colour that would absorb rather than reflect light; the colour photographers use. He also had a wooden floor laid in the studio instead of the ubiquitous red carrelage tiled floors of southern France and this had the same deadening effect as the walls.

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There’s a tall slot in the corner of the studio so he could bring in and take out his large late Baigneuses compositions.

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I used to try to paint in a room with a rose coloured carpet and it was difficult, and I’ve never had a studio with northern light.

I bloody love that studio (and I should have taken more photographs).

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One month ago I left my house obscenely early one morning in the pitch black and plodded down to Hastings station to catch the first train of the day to Gatwick airport.
I didn’t see anyone or a single car moving and I didn’t really believe that the 5.08 train would run. There were however a few worn and desultory souls on the platform and the train arrived. I flew to Marseillles and was in Aix-En-Provence by lunchtime.

The following morning I walked a couple of kilometres out of the town, to the north, up to Les Lauves where Cezanne had a studio built in 1901. I approached like Abraham going up the mountain to meet his god… or as one might approach Bob Dylan.
And the buggers wouldn’t let me in. Me ! His number bloody one disciple. The studio was full with a pre booked group of Americans.

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So, I had two and a half hours to kill until the studio reopened after lunch.

I continued on up the hill to find LE TERRAIN DES PEINTRES, the place which afforded Cezanne a perfect view of the Mont St Victoire and the spot where he had worked for much of the last five years of his life and where he made eleven of the most beautiful and accomplished oil paintings ever painted.

Uncharacteristically the French hadn’t overdone it, there are just eleven plaques with images of Cezanne’s paintings and nothing else.
… there was a young German man there. We talked and I told him how the soil around the base of the mountain is red because a century before christ 100 000 invading Germans had been slaughtered there by Caesar’s general Marius. He claimed that they would have been technically Teutons rather than Germans but then he left almost immediately…
and then it was just me and the mountain.

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As I stood, exactly where my master had stood (see photo), and looked at his mountain a 5 Euro note was blown tumbling along the ground right to my feet. It was certainly from Cezanne. He was saying ‘Russell, go and find yourself a bar and raise a glass to my memory’, so I did.


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