Postcard from Provence: Paintings by Julian Merrow-Smith

Postcard from Provence: Paintings by Julian Merrow-Smith
Once upon a time, there was an English painter who moved to Provence, a part of southern France long associated with artists seeking the colors nature might reveal to them in the region’s legendary sunlight.

This painter was not working in the time of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, however, but in the blossoming days of the internet, as an early participant in painting/blogging and the nascent practice of “painting a day”.

Before “painting a day” acquired its current connotations of artists latching on to the term as a way to drive eyeballs, and hopefully purchasers, to their web based storefronts and auctions, the regimen of painting one small painting a day had a different purpose. It was (and still is for those who practice it in the right spirit) a form of artistic discipline, a way to focus and hone one’s painting skills and artistic vision.

Our English painter in Provence, Julian Merrow-Smith, thought of it as a project, painting a small painting every day over a period of time, and posting each day’s painting on the internet for sale and comment, a practice he admired in the hands of its originator, Duane Keiser.

Merrow-Smith’s small paintings were essentially the size of postcards, and the act of posting them on the web akin to sending them out to someone, thus his project took on the name “Postcard from Provence”.

Now, five years and over 1,300 paintings later, in a small abstract of that project, winnowing down the work of those years into 140 selections, Merrow-Smith has released a book of paintings titled, simply enough, Postcard from Provence: Paintings by Julian Merrow Smith.

The book, as one who has been following Merrow-Smith’s work for some time might expect, is beautiful, and wonderfully produced. Representative of the project as a whole, the paintings are divided more or less equally between still life subjects and landscape. The book design is elegant and simple; the printing well balanced, the colors rich and vibrant (and, for those who are into such things, the book is printed in one of those ink and paper combinations that smells wonderful).

In addition, there is a conversation with the artist in talks with Michael Gitlitz, that delves into his history, the origins of the project and his approach to painting.

The book can be ordered, signed and numbered, directly from the artist, or without signature, through Amazon in the UK and Alibris in the US. There is also a list of selected bookshops in the UK that have the book on shelf.

There is a preview widget on the book page of the Postcard From Provence blog, that allows you to step through 50 pages of the book. Be sure to choose the “full screen” option.

I have long been a bit frustrated with the reproductions of Merrow-Smith’s work on the web, in that they feel small, even though the paintings themselves are small.

Here they are displayed in the high resolution of print (much sharper than images on the web, as I frequently remind my readers). With only a few exceptions, they are also, much to my delight, presented at their actual size.

In print we can see, in a way that is not clear in the low resolution images on the web, the painterly brush strokes, sensual textures and deft painting handling that Merrow-Smith has worked so hard to acquire and now wields with apparent ease.

In selecting the paintings for the book he has not done what I might have hoped. I’ve mentioned before that I see his story as one of artistic growth and struggle, told over that five year period in the sequence of over a thousand paintings, and I might have wanted a temporal sequence showing that advancement.

In retrospect, of course, that would have been a bad and unworkable idea in the limited space of a book. (That story is there, however, on his site in the form of his archive of paintings.) Instead he has taken the much more reasonable course of selecting some of the best of those paintings, which is to say, mostly recent ones [Correction: see this post’s comments].

These are the fruits of his labors, the result and reward of the daily painting discipline, and they display the current state of his abilities, his deft draftsmanship, crisp and lively paint handling, superb sense of chiaroscuro, firm command of composition and negative space and, most dramatically, his evocation of color and light.

In a way, the book has a storybook feeling to it, as if a writer had decided to depict the life of a painter in Provence and the paintings had been chosen and arranged to communicate that perfectly; here is the painter on the edge of the vineyard, bursting with greens on the edge of shadow; here is the painter at the foot of the hill, distant mountains washed in haze; here is the painter in his house, this evening’s fish waiting to be prepared, scales glistening in the kitchen light; here is the onion, hints of transparency in its film of skin; here the garlic, rounded in deep chiaroscuro; here the simple glass of wine, reflective and refractive, the day’s fruit from the local market or the artist’s garden, ripe with color.

Here is the artist and the bits of his life he has chosen to share with us, whether in sunlight or on a kitchen counter, sparkling with the colors that Provence has revealed to him.

6 Replies to “Postcard from Provence: Paintings by Julian Merrow-Smith

  1. Charley, this is a particularly eloquent post, among many to choose from, with you! I discovered Merrow-Smith myself not long ago, and agree completely with your point: “Before “painting a day” acquired its current connotations of artists latching on to the term as a way to drive eyeballs, and hopefully purchasers, to their web based storefronts and auctions, the regimen of painting one small painting a day had a different purpose. It was (and still is for those who practice it in the right spirit) a form of artistic discipline, a way to focus and hone one’s painting skills and artistic vision.” I am most pleased to learn Merrow-Smith has made of some of his paintings a book, though also suspect I may agree with your view that it would have been nice to have the book as witness to his “artistic growth and struggle.” When I explored the PAD movement, I found, as you have, too much attempt to capitalize on an idea, rather than use the concept to grow artistically. Merrow-Smith, as well as Jos van Riswick, were welcome exceptions to that. And I would like to praise one more artist whom I believe used the method to grow and grow: Megan Barron, whose art may be found, among other places, at She started her painting a day project long before it was fashionable and used the method as it should be used, to marvelous effect.

    1. Thanks, Raining Acorns. There are other exceptions, of course, a number of painters who have taken on the practice as a discipline. Thanks for the suggestion about Megan Barron and her found objects series.

  2. Hi Charley,

    Thanks for the lovely write up. It was all a lot more work than I imagined but I’m really pleased with the result and the reaction of the public has been overwhelming.

    Of course the selection of images was very difficult and, disappointingly, I didn’t always have good enough reproductions of paintings I might otherwise have included — I lost most of 2005 in a computer crash (learning about back-up the hard way)! Having said that, 48 (32%) of the selected paintings are from 2009, 46 from 2008, 30 from 2007, 12 from 2006 and and I was very pleased to be able to include 9 paintings from 2005 – one for each month – from the very first year of the project (I did sneak in two from 2010 too). I’ve got through three digital cameras in that time (I’ve lost count of computers) and the quality of the recorded image (and my ability to take photographs) has improved markedly with each change.

    Again, thanks for your support and enthusiasm, I do appreciate it enormously.

    1. Thanks, Julian.

      The post was my pleasure. The book is a delight.

      I was evidently wrong in assuming that most of the paintings were recent just by looking at them, thrown perhaps by how wonderful they look in print. Thanks for the description of the mixture of years for your selections.

      I neglected to mention in the post that you did most of the work on the book yourself, while for the large part still maintaining your painting regimen.

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