Los Tejados. The story of a painting.

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I was exploring a new part of Madrid on a recent run, past the Railway Museum up into the Enrique Tierno Galván park – refreshing sprinklers on both sides of the main path, and then up around the edge of the outdoor amphitheatre. Rounding the back of the amphitheatre I saw the distinctive blue Mahou (A Spanish beer) building and realised I was running in my painting 'Los Tejados' (The Roofs).

Here is the story about a poem, a piece of music, two poetry films, and various collaborations that have come together during the process of working on this painting.

'How many brushstrokes of how many colours
to paint an urban landscape?'

April 2009


I was living in an attic flat in the neighbourhood of Lavapies, Madrid, and had been working on a series of oil paintings on cardboard using stereoscopic transparencies I’d taken at my grandfather’s home in New Zealand a couple of years before I moved to Spain. Before that I was focussed on portraits and had painted the flamenco dancer Miryam Chachmany in ‘La Súndari’ which was later to be shown at the Saatchi Gallery in London. This was painted on old wooden window shutters salvaged from a skip. I liked the idea of alternative painting supports as they carry their own history or in the case of cardboard boxes they were light and freely available, especially living in a street full of wholesale shops.

My room in the shared flat was small but had a high oak-beamed ceiling and a wonderful smooth white wall opposite the door. I’d sometimes climb onto the beams to look out the Velux window. With the high-density housing in Madrid you’re lucky to have a decent view. I’ve had views onto drab interior patios where a neighbour’s radio blares from an open window all day, or onto a narrow noisy street with car horns tooting as trucks unload and a police car attempts to clear a way with its wailing.

March 2009

It was the spring of 2009 when I stretched a large canvas and primed it with gesso. I had climbed out the window and taken photos of the view from the roof. I was drawn to the scale and composition of one of the images. It wasn’t a particularly remarkable day, clouds softened the shadows and the tower blocks on the horizon caught the sun. The distant haze gave an even blue-grey tone to the sky so one isn’t sure if it is cloud or sky.

I blew up the image to the same size as the canvas, creating a ‘photocopy’ in black and white with the basic lines that I could print out onto A4 sheets and stick together, and I transferred it to the canvas with carbon paper before blocking in tonal areas with thin washes of paint to give something to work on and to help fix the image.

'My previous work had moved between abstract and figurative and into photo-based work but this was on a scale and level of detail I’d not tackled before.'

And then began the more detailed work, starting on the left-hand side and working brick by brick and roof tile by roof tile. I was painting with tiny size two Kolinsky sable brushes and the work required a lot of concentration. My previous work had moved between abstract and figurative and into photo-based work but this was on a scale and level of detail I’d not tackled before, except in the smaller Still-life, Le Plessis-Robinson (1999).

It is a learning process and often one isn’t really aware what it is you’re learning until you are able to look back over the whole process, so I'll leave these reflections for later.

March 2009


A decade later and I’m living in another attic flat a little further up the hill. The canvas has been stored facing the wall for a number of years and I begin to wonder if I’ll ever finish it. In the meantime I publish two collections of poetry, including the first poem I wrote in Spanish, Paisaje Urbano (Urban Landscape), in Sr Citizen (2011), which gives a nod to the canvas with the lines: 'how many brushstrokes of how many colours/to paint an urban landscape?' and it closes with: ‘the landscape I paint is from a past/that no longer exists the same./of this I’ll make something new.’

Towards the end of winter in February of 2011 my friend Ben Webster Williams emailed me a track he’d written with Paul Higgins back in 2004 that had it’s own story of struggle in finding its place, and he asked me: ‘we wondered if you would like to get involved in this… it’s not playing guitar… it’s using your poetry on music.’ It was very exciting for me. Paisaje Urbano seemed to fit the music really well and there was space for the poem in both Spanish and English. We made a mix with my voice which sounded great.

I had begun experimenting with poetry film and made my first short film La danza de los pinceles (The Dance of the Brushes). I was offered a temporary studio to work on a large commission for the shop deflamenco in Madrid where I also exhibited a series of flamenco inspired paintings and photographs. I gave recitals combining poetry with flamenco dance and piano in Venice and Madrid. I ran an online Spanish poetry competition for six years. My creativity was moving in different directions and the painting remained untouched against the wall.

June 2018

I ask myself perhaps it was the flat? The low sloping ceiling with one north-facing Velux window didn’t let in sufficient light or in the summer too much, so only certain hours of the day and times of the year I could appreciate the canvas as a whole – but then I once had a studio in a dark old barn, the small windows covered in dust and spider’s webs, and I had to rig up fluorescent daylight tubes to see anything. I wonder if it is the low ceiling or maybe the lack of space to be able to stand back to view the work properly? – but what about my favourite studio in the cramped out-house one summer at my granddad’s in Nelson? – although there I was able to take my paints out into the garden sometimes. I was also concerned about painting in oils in a confined space. Half the year it is freezing in Madrid and I didn’t want to work with turpentine with the window closed. I have worked before with lashings of turpentine on my abstract paintings and it can be pretty potent even in a spacious studio.

The funny thing is, the track I’d recorded with Ben was also in a hiatus, and then out of the blue, some six years down the road at the end of summer 2018, he emails me this amazing new version with drums he and Andrew Marvell had recorded on Andy’s narrow boat on the Hackney Marshes. Andy had really upped the game with his groove and I listened over and again on repeat. In the intervening years I’d had more experience of reciting my poems on stage and I’d also bought a decent microphone for my filming so I recorded a new version of the poem. The track had some digital cello elements that we thought needed a live sound too. Some things just need to find their moment I guess – my neighbour, Camilo Bosso, is the bass player in the group O Sister!, but despite hearing the deep jazzy tones drifting pleasantly through our adjoining wall it took me a few days to click the jigsaw piece into place and think to ask him. Camilo and I recorded a high cello-like line on the bass and I also recorded a short piece on flamenco guitar for the end of the track, although I’d not studied the guitar for a number of years. I sent these off to Ben…

May 2019


Ever since I’d written Paisaje Urbano and begun to make poetry films I’d had in mind to make a film of this poem. It is set in the neighbourhood I lived in and I had begun to make stop-motion photographs of tree shadows moving across a white wall or the sun on a wrought-iron window frame and I still have these in a folder on an old hard drive. With the new version of the music to use in the soundtrack I began thinking again of filming and how I would do it. Being a very personal poem I liked the idea of filming myself in the local neighbourhood. And at this point occurs another big jump in the story.

Back in 2005, when I was studying flamenco guitar and working with flamenco dancer Miryam Chachmany, I met Joanna Wivell. She was intrigued by our passion for flamenco and how we'd come to Spain to study and she began following our story for a possible documentary. We filmed during the local summer street festivities, playing flamenco guitar, during the opening of one of my exhibitions, visiting local characters, and she captured some wonderful moments. Time moved on and the documentary didn’t materialize, but at some point in the intervening years Joanna had given me the mini-DV tapes and I had managed to transfer them to a hard drive where they sat half-forgotten. Now, almost 15 years later I realised I was sitting on the material for the poetry film and only needed to ask Joanna’s permission and begin editing…

CRA Matadero, January 2020


And here, a big ellipsis to 2020. I'd begun work again on the canvas, first in my flat and then in January 2020, moving into the amazing studio space of the Centre for Artist Residencies at the Matadero Madrid where Lilián and I were awarded an arts residency. Then the Covid-19 lockdown came into force in Madrid mid-March and the painting was inaccessible for two months (locked in the Matadero), and then I was able to retrieve it and continue painting in my flat.

Cover art. Webster. Urban Landscape/Paisaje Urbano (feat. Charles Olsen)

We finished the music track. Ben made a last minute dash up to London the last day before the lockdown happened in England, to spend time with the very creative Alex McGowan at Space Eko East fine-tuning the final mix. We were really excited for Urban Landscape/Paisaje Urbano (feat. Charles Olsen) to finally be on its way to all digital platforms for its release on 24 July 2020 as part of the Webster Collective. [Available here: Urban Landscape/Paisaje Urbano (feat. Charles Olsen) – single, Webster Collective]

The poetry film of the same name is also in the bag and has been submitted to poetry and short film festivals with the log line: ‘I live the days in dreams that never end.’ Poet Charles Olsen studies flamenco guitar and savours the processions and street parties of his neighbourhood in Madrid, and tells of lost love. It received its premiere in 2021 in Festival Nudo in Barcelona. You can watch the trailer here:


And the painting Los Tejados was still in progress. There were a couple of details where I felt the light was wrong. One of the difficulties of painting in a realist style is in how our eyes compensate for and adapt to contrasts of light and dark. A camera will over- or under-expose for bright or dark areas unless it has a High Dynamic Range option which can itself often look strange to the eye, whereas our eyes can appreciate the fine details of a shady interior and the sunlit view from the window in a split-second. In a painting the visual understanding is all about the adjacent forms providing visual clues and context – a shiny metal vent doesn’t come to life until the roof tiles behind it are painted – and there is a tendency to add more white, or light, to shady areas. The eye interprets white objects as white even though they are in shadow and may actually be dark grey or even another colour (see the 2015 Guardian article: Is The Dress blue and black or white and gold? The answer lies in vision psychology). Taking a black and white photo of the painting can help in discerning these visual compensations. In reality there are only about four tiny areas of pure white straight from the tube in the entire painting.

I love videos of work in progress. These are great for Instagram artists. It was enough trying to focus on painting without planning out and setting up the filming of the whole process on and off over the years. I did nevertheless share a small section of painting a couple of tiles which you can see here: @colsenart.

(Image made using Google Maps)

I recently looked on Google Earth for the approximate view so I could identify some of the buildings and features. It is interesting to see how space is compressed by the camera lens and some buildings appear much closer than they are in reality and to realize that there are hundreds of buildings hidden behind those we can see.

(Image made using Google Maps)

When working on the painting in the CRA Matadero sometimes visitors would ask me why I was working on the canvas upside-down. There are a number of reasons but I’d just mention one or two and they’d go away happy. I change the rotation of the canvas depending in part on what was most comfortable – if I was standing, or seated. In my flat with the low ceiling I used a child’s plastic chair for the low parts. It was also to avoid leaning on already painted areas so if I got paint on my hand I wouldn’t smudge it over the painted area, and if I happened to drop a brush it would fall against the unpainted canvas. Another reason is that by turning both the reference photo and canvas upside-down or on their side you are less conditioned by what you know is there because the shapes become unfamiliar, making it easier to paint what you see rather than what you think you see.

Photo by Jacqueline Quintero

When I started painting I had the original photograph on the computer screen, but further down the line I got an iPad and it became much easier to work with the photo. I can blow up a section to the same size as the painting, rotating it as needed, and use a music stand to hold the iPad at the correct height next to where I am working. There is something beautifully poetic about the music stand in front of the canvas. I love the simplicity and adaptability of this setup. Working with the backlit image on the iPad also helps provide a constant brightness of image and colour. I took the photo on my previous digital camera and it doesn’t have a particularly high resolution, however I like the fact that the image is not overly detailed so I don’t feel constrained by perfection.

Other details I like about the materials are: because I’m using such small brushes I keep a mix of turpentine and linseed oil, to thin the oil paint, in a small Spanish ‘Carmencita’ herb or spice jar and have cut the holes together to make one hole big enough to dip the brush in. I can flip the lid closed to avoid any fumes from evaporating turpentine.

Instead of a plank of wood I use the side of a biscuit box which makes a very lightweight palette that is comfortable to hold. I scrape off dried paint rather than cleaning it so that I keep the reference of the colours I’ve been using, and I’ve used the same palette for the whole painting. For my brushes I love my jar of old lentils with a cling-film cover held with a rubber band to stop them spilling, and small holes so each brush stands in place where you insert it and doesn’t get paint on its neighbour.

I’m using a mix of Lucas and Michael Harding oil paints. The Michael Harding paints are more expensive but they have such an intense colour that a little touch, of say cadmium red, will go a very long way. This careful use of paint has meant I have used much less paint overall than in one of my abstract works of a similar scale and generally my work area is tidier – I’ve even managed to work in everyday clothes and not get paint all over them.

Detail, May 2019


Working on the painting over such an extended period of time I began to wonder if I would ever finish it; and to question what purpose the painting served. The reaction from the few people who have seen it at different points has made it worthwhile. Seeing someone stand for minutes before the painting and contemplating the details is particularly satisfying. Some people have commented, even though it was barely half-finished, that they liked it as it was.

'For me painting is not about finding a style of one’s own but rather a way of engaging with the world.'

Personally it has been an ongoing journey, even a meditation, of discovery. A day working on a tiny square of beautiful colours that could be an abstract painting in itself, or finding a way to naturally depict an old weathered wall or a sun-bleached turquoise canopy; these can be very satisfying as is the excitement of seeing elements in the foreground really pop out of the canvas once the areas behind them are painted.

Still-life, Le Plessis-Robinson (1999)

In my painting Still-life, Le Plessis-Robinson (1999) [See above] I used a technique where a fan brush is dragged through the wet paint to roughly blend the colours which creates a wonderful optical effect where the eye recomposes the image into a very natural heightened realism. I considered doing this here but the scale, and the continuous large ares of fine detail, as well as working in the very dry air of Madrid which makes keeping the paint sufficiently wet complicated, especially as I was working when I could between classes. I was close to missing some classes because I was so engrossed in the painting and I’d have to change clothes, grab my things and jump on my kick-scooter down the hill to the class in five minutes.

I decided to follow the textures of each surface, enjoy the challenges they brought, and tried to keep the light touch of the pale blue hut on the roof of the building in the left foreground. This was my starting point; my first question and answer. Working on such a scale I had to make a choice regarding my approach and follow it through. I am reminded of Sir Stanley Spencer’s paintings in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham, such as the unfinished Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta (1952-59), where we can appreciate his working process, starting in one part of the canvas and completing each section piece by piece following his initial drawing. I also love the work in progress photographs of the marvellous Spanish photorealist artist Jesús Lozano Saorin whose watercolours reflect a loving eye for light and texture, starting with detailed drawings before working from weathered walls towards the fine details. In this sense the painting is finished once the intention is complete, in my case the intention as it is conceived in the pale blue hut. At the same time, it is dificult to appreciate an area until it is seen in the context of the whole, and there are a handful of areas I knew I wanted to return to; answers that came to me during the many hours of looking.

On my art foundation course in Farnham back in 1991 I remember a visiting artist talking about his work and after showing a large pointallist painting he’d done he recommended all artists should do at least one in this style. This is about taking you out of your comfort zone and forcing you to really consider light and colour in a new way. As an artist who has often used large brushes, poured paint and washes, rags, wax and other materials, using only size 2 to 4 brushes on a large canvas has been a big challenge.


For me painting is not about finding a style of one’s own but rather a way of engaging with the world. I love how the story of the painting has run in parallel with other creative projects. How one day I find myself running in the painting, how the painting now hangs on our wall in a flat where we only have windows in the ceiling and only see sky and it is like a window onto our neighbouhood, how it has influenced a series of much looser, abstract watercolours, and how its story continues.

Open Studio in CRA, Matadero Madrid, July 2021

In the final two months of the Residency in Matadero Madrid, I was working on a new poetry film with collaborations from friends, artists and poetry filmmakers Sarah Tremlett and Eduardo Yagüe. Inspired by my poem 'La exposción' (The Exhibition), it is an irreverant take on the art world with a childlike viewpoint and the final scene features the Argentinian actor Ignacio Kowalski looking at the painting 'Los Tejados' in a gallery. The poetry film 'La exposición' has been submitted to film festivals and has yet to receive its premiere but you can watch the trailer here:

The painting currently hangs beside the piano, so the nearest roof tiles often catch my eye as I'm playing, and if the light is right they draw my eye into their heavy terracota textures that echo the tiles on the apartments further away, and up into the distant trees and towerblocks on the horizon.

UPDATE, 9 MAY 2023

Last Saturday we were in the cinema Artistic Metropol in Madrid watching my film 'La exposición', and the final scene with the wonderful interaction of Ignacio Kowalski with the painting. It's the first time I'd watched it in a cinema and I thought it worked really well.

Jesús Pulpón filming, Madrid, 2022

And last year the Spanish film director Jesús Pulpón asked me and Lilián if we could participate in a film he is working on. We went to Munich for the filming. One thing led to another and he decided to visit us in Madrid and film details of the painting. His film is still a work in progress but I love the fact that my painting is already featured in two films! I've previously had one of my abstract paintings filmed in Shepperton Studios in the UK for an ambient music video. In that case we poured water over the surface and the cameraman played with the reflections and movement. I wonder what further surprises my painting will bring!