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The Creative Process: Starting from a Blank Canvas

Norman and Sarah Cornish moved to 67 Whitworth Terrace in 1967 and one of the main attractions was that the former Methodist Minister’s Manse provided 2 large rooms downstairs, a large kitchen and dining space, 4 bedrooms and a former office upstairs above the kitchen which became his studio. The studio was moved to Beamish Museum and then to the Coming Home exhibition at Spennymoor Town Hall in 2017 where it was installed behind glass. It is an accurate re-creation of the original studio. One bedroom was used to store mouldings and some completed works, and the downstairs front room also served as an additional space to work. Here was the location of his Morso frame cutter, a plan chest for large sheets of paper and sketch books in piles all over the place!

This second studio space was useful to accommodate larger works when space was fully utilised in the main studio, where different paintings were at different stages of development. Cornish stretched his own canvas onto frames and fixed the material using traditional methods with small black, flat headed tacks. The canvas was then covered in white primer, and his ‘theatre of operations’ would be ready.

One day in April 2004 a family member asked if an evolving bar scene could be photographed at different stages from beginning to end. Here follows the selected images in 2004 from April 26th until May 5th as the painting was created and developed on the canvas.

  1. April 26th : In the beginning a blank canvas with grid lines added by chalk or charcoal to ‘square up’ the extracts of drawings from his sketchbooks such as; the domino players, men at the bar with dog, the beer glasses on a table carefully arranged with beer mats and towards the rear of the painting the darts players.
  2. April 29th: Some final adjustments to make the composition work and an impromptu lecture for the photographer.
  3. May 2nd : A study in concentration as outline shapes are strengthened.
  4. May 3rd: Detail is added to the figures including light and shade, creases in trousers and the spacing of the ceiling lights is adjusted.
  5. May 6th: The first layer of colour to achieve balance and harmony.
  6. May 1th: The final version with details added and awaiting his signature but rarely with a date.

Some paintings took many weeks or months to complete and Cornish’s painting of the Tyne Bridge from Bottlebank took several years before he was satisfied with the perspective. Cornish worked for many hours each day in natural light but always stopped for a lunch-break. After lunch he would complete the Northern Echo crossword.

Other examples of original drawings alongside the completed works can also be seen in numerous examples throughout, Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks available to purchase from our online shop.

The Creative Process: Part 2

The creative process for Cornish was a highly sophisticated exercise in draughtsmanship. He would consider the relationship between the body shapes, creases in the trousers, position of characters at the bar and the introduction of additional characters such as a barmaid to complete a composition. Even the location of the pint glasses and quantity of beer in each glass is adjusted to ‘fine tune’ the finished lay-out.

Each picture in development is a step towards an evolving and carefully designed and precisely constructed composition.

With each version his thinking can be observed with subtle changes such as the link between a newspaper and the shape of the man at the bar, the juxtaposition of the tables at the front of the picture, the position and angle of the dog’s head and finally the introduction of the man arching his back with hands in pockets. During the process a grid was also superimposed onto the picture to enable scaling up to a much larger canvas.

Cornish often re-visited subjects of interest which he re-worked to create the perfect balance in the picture. He worked on themes repeatedly and almost obsessively, wrestling in his mind to find a faultless composition.

Next week… starting from a blank canvas.

Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks, contains many more examples of the creative process from initial sketches to completed paintings along with a selection of quotations by Norman Cornish. Available from our online store.

The Creative Process: Part 1

One of the popular questions at the end of public lectures about Cornish’s life and work has always been about the process undertaken by Cornish to create his paintings and in particular his larger works on canvas.

A popular misconception is that a completed picture is produced as a single exercise from beginning to end. But the creative process is actually a very engrossing and taxing mental exercise for the artist demanding maximum concentration, and can often take days, weeks or even years to complete as the artist revisits the work several times.

The pictures accompanying this feature provide a wonderful example of the evolving steps to achieve satisfaction with the outcome. Knowing when to stop was also important and family members would often be asked “what do you think?”

Much thought would go into the underlying geometry of the images and the layout, which Cornish considered to be an abstract art form in itself, giving rhythm and structure to the picture.

Characters are imported from his sketchbooks to achieve balance in the composition and appear to interact naturally in the scene. His initial thoughts are sometimes added in note form and colour notes along with experimentation to achieve colour and tonal balance.

The maths calculations appear frequently in his sketchbooks and are used to work out proportions along with the sizes of mounts and frames. Double click to enlarge images.

Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks, contains many more examples of the creative process from initial sketches to completed paintings along with a selection of quotations by Norman Cornish. Available from our online store.

To be continued…… part 2 next week and at the beginning of February- starting from a blank canvas.

Benches: The Seat of Learning

Benches and the people sitting on them in public spaces in Spennymoor and sometimes further afield, became an obvious subject for Cornish.

He never owned a car or had any desire to learn to drive which was probably a ‘blessing in disguise’ because his attention would rarely have been on the road ahead. His lifetime friend Jack Savage would occasionally drive Cornish to places of potential interest but his main mode of transport was a bus. His only journey by plane was when he flew to Paris in 1966 to record ‘Cornish in Paris’ with the Tyne Tees Television crew.

From 67 Whitworth Terrace it took only two minutes to walk to the ‘four lane ends’ which was the location of one of his favourite benches. He referred to it as ‘the seat of learning’. He would occasionally wander along to sit there and talk with old friends, and it became a special place.

In the opposite direction, a short walk past St Pauls Church and the Zebra Crossing took him onto the High Street in the town centre, where there were several benches conveniently located for shoppers to rest and elderly folk to sit and watch the world go by. Sometimes, a local person sitting with a companion dog would be Cornish’s subject matter.

In his own words: “ Spennymoor has all that a painter needs in order to depict humanity”

Such activity, on and around the seat, provided Cornish with natural sitters, in poses, with body language reflecting the subject of conversations, and sometimes their associated emotional responses. As someone who had lived his entire life in Spennymoor he was accepted in his own community where he was such a well- known figure. This was perfect for an artist such as Cornish who was deeply absorbed in his observations of people and shapes.

Further examples of his observations of people may be found in Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks available on line from our online shop.

Horse and Cart: The Rag and Bone Man

Cornish was aware of the contribution his work could make to both history and the sociology of mining communities. Although he was selective in the aspects of everyday life he recorded, his subjects are also a valuable historical resource beyond the world of art.

A horse and cart ‘the rag and bone man,’ was a regular sight on the streets of Spennymoor during the period chronicled by Cornish. In his own words:

“I have always believed that art is a form of communication and every picture has its own narrative”

He had an outstanding ability to quickly observe and record people in the most unlikely situations and the horse and carts seen in and around Spennymoor provide an excellent example. Sometimes they appear as subjects in their own right and on other occasions they are placed within street scenes as part of the natural inter-action between the subject and other people going about their daily lives at the same time.

His studio accumulated a significant collection of sketchbooks and scraps of paper, sometimes showing rapid drawings and often with written observations which clearly represent his thinking about his work at the time.

One classic example from many such papers is:

“In our memories and of course in history books, most so called ‘great events’ are usually well-recorded, but sometimes the ordinary things that happen in our lives are not considered extraordinary enough for comment. Yet things are often very important nevertheless, and sometimes give a reader a much better idea of the times than supposedly the great events.”

During the war years, touring theatre companies performed at the Everyman Theatre at The Spennymoor Settlement under the aegis of companies of the calibre of The Old Vic. One of the visiting actors was Wilfred Bramble, who was later to achieve fame as Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son, a sitcom about a rag-and-bone business illustrating a different slice of social history. For quiz enthusiasts the horse was called Hercules !

Other examples of street scenes may be found in Behind The Scenes: The Norman Cornish Sketchbooks, available from

Cornish Centenary

Throughout the centenary year, an interesting range of themed exhibitions is planned in order to commemorate Norman’s life and to celebrate his work.

If you would like to find out more click below:

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