PORTOBELLO beach, and Paul Reid was down on his hands and knees positioning a little golden goblet into the sand.
As the waves rolled in, Cockenzie Power Station’s chimneys to his right, the promenade chippies and cafes behind, he captured image after image on his camera, each angle, each shadow, every gleam of sunlight on its gilded curves, all recorded, filed and saved.
Back home in the “bland room” he calls his studio – bland and empty because most of what Paul does tends to leave and not come back, destined instead to hang on the walls of wealthy art lovers – the little golden cup and his beach snaps were propped up in preparation for Hercules’ arrival, muscular and a bit dishevelled, salty spray from the Atlantic drying in his hair and the cool water lapping at his bare feet.
Today the cup, the beach, the Greek hero and Penicuik-based artist Paul are at a New Town art gallery preparing for one of the most eagerly anticipated art exhibitions of the Festival.
On the walls of The Scottish Gallery in Dundas Street hang the results of intense labour, meticulously detailed realistic paintings that at first glance might look as if they’ve time travelled from an age when art wasn’t all about unmade beds and pickled cows, yet on closer inspection are curiously modern: half men-half beasts of Greek mythology against backgrounds that could be – and sometimes are – strikingly familiar, in their hands or at their feet little glimpses of the modern world that shouldn’t be there but still somehow don’t look out of place.
Combined, they make up the latest collection of work by an increasingly acclaimed artist whose art school tutors originally sighed and said he was doing it all wrong, but who now counts royalty and famous patrons among his ardent fans.
Eventually someone will spend thousands and take home the Hercules painting – there are two to choose from – the little goblet that sat at Portobello sand now depicted as the giant vessel granted to him by Helios (the sun) so he could sail to Erythia where he was to kill a three-headed giant and bring home his cattle.
“The cup was photographed at Portobello beach,” nods Paul, “and the beach in the painting is Gullane. I need to have photographs and rough materials to work from so I’ll scout around looking for whatever hills I find or beaches. I use the Scottish landscape, because that’s what’s around me.”
The result is that the gentle lines of rolling hills behind Odysseus, depicted in one striking painting not as an Ancient Greek but with brown hiking boots, kilt socks and rifle as he finds men cruelly transformed with pigs’ heads by the witch goddess Circe, are based on scenery around Ballater. In another version of the Hercules myth, the rocks of Gullane in the foreground are complemented by the island of Fidra rising from the sea beyond.
The largest work – a 7ft by 5ft scene of Theseus and the Minotaur with a £60,000 price tag – involved him meticulously preparing mini models to base it on, including a mini set of stairs, a moulded lion’s head and tiny candelabra adapted, bizarrely, from a little Egyptian chariot model bought at a branch of Game Station which he took apart and rebuilt using nails and glue.
One of the most intense works, a black ink depiction of the gigantic form of a cyclops, towers over the long defunct brewery buildings at Duddingston Road West, which father-of-two Paul found almost by accident and felt perfectly suited the brute force of the mythical creatures.
If the images look as if they’ve fallen from the pages of a fantasy novel, then it’s probably not surprising. Paul, 37, today keeps a guide to Greek mythology art – a reference point for many of his works – handy, but as a child growing up in Scone, Perthshire, it was Ladybird books that retold ancient stories with fascinating illustrations that caught his attention, before giving way to teenage superhero comic books.
“It was actually comics I wanted to do. I loved 2000 AD and Judge Dredd,” he confesses. “I spent a lot of time copying the images, and when you think about it, comic book artists tend to draw perspective and human form – they need to know where all the muscles go and how they work. They don’t spend as long as I do on it, but they need to be able to do it. So when I went to art college, I could already draw the human form correctly, because I’d spent so long drawing Batman.”
His realistic style, the “superhero” mythical characters and their stories which even now find their way into modern culture means he’s amassed a league of fans from a sector not generally known for their patronage of art galleries and highbrow masterpieces – the video games community.
“I’m from that generation that played a lot of video games and used the first home computers,” says Paul, who, in turn, is hugely appreciative of the art skills involved in today’s massively popular games industry. “They seem to like my stuff and I like a lot of what they are doing.”
At the other end of the scale, his work has drawn royal patronage. The Prince of Wales has followed his work from his graduation from Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee, where tutors keen to promote more contemporary styles often marked down his efforts, to his first Scottish solo exhibition at the Scottish Gallery in 2002.
So impressed was Charles, below, that he invited Paul to join him on a royal official visit to Turkey and Jordan in 2004, where he soaked up the desert landscapes and ancient cities and returned to his Edinburgh studio to create striking artworks, three of which are now in royal possession.
Now his latest work is waiting for inspection – and already sold stickers are dotted around the Scottish Gallery’s walls – prices range from a couple of thousand pounds for a sketch, to the supersize £60,000.
So who buys his work? “Various people,” he smiles. “I’m lucky. There’s one very famous person who’s bought two or three, but I’m not supposed to say who. They bought large paintings though, so you can assume they have quite big walls . . .”
n Paul Reid Mythologies is at The Scottish Gallery in Dundas Street (www.scottish-gallery.co.uk) from tomorrow to September 4.
Inside story of amazing man
CORPSES, skin peeled back to show nerves, muscles, bones, the intricate twists of arteries and veins, and vital organs splayed open – all the ingredients, perhaps, of a grisly horror show.
In the hands of a master, however, with his genius eye on scientific discovery, an inquiring brain – perhaps too inquiring, for his thirst for knowledge would almost become a negative – and a breathtaking ability to capture life in 2D, and the results are among the most precious and fascinating works of art.
Leonardo da Vinci’s meticulous anatomical drawings accompanied by his own observations written in distinctive ‘mirror script’ were, however, not simply art for art’s sake. For as a new exhibition of his work shows by pairing his images with modern technologies, his scientific eye was so remarkably accurate that even now, 500 years later, his work is continuing to amaze medical experts as well as art lovers.
The drawings have been brought together at The Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse for a Festival exhibition which not only explores their undisputed status as works of art, but probes their creator’s astonishing ability to think years ahead of his time.
Among the exhibits is Da Vinci’s stunning and moving depiction of a baby nestling inside the womb, a spotlight on the mystery of life and one which, today, expectant couples might routinely enjoy courtesy of the marvels of 3D scanning technology.
Which is why, explains exhibition curator Martin Clayton, it sits alongside a 3D ultrasound of a real baby in the womb – a carbon copy, almost, of Da Vinci’s drawing and all the more amazing given that his work was originally modelled on a dissected cow and a lot of guesswork. “We can clearly confirm with the 3D ultrasound that he was right,” he says.
The works, known as Anatomical Manuscript A, include 240 meticulous drawings and thousands of words of notes written in the left-handed artist’s distinctive ‘mirror-script’ scrawl. That he wrote in such a complex manner meant the anatomical documents were simply stashed among his personal papers – lying disregarded and largely forgotten about for centuries, while his more famous paintings and ideas overshadowed what the artist himself may have regarded as his most important work.
According to Martin, Da Vinci had already studied anatomy in the 1490s from an artistic perspective. His thirst for knowledge inspired him to return years later – already famous as an artist, he focussed with new intensity on medical illustration. “There was very little tradition of medical illustration,” adds Martin. “He started with nothing but eventually got up to being on a par with modern knowledge of the anatomy. For the last ten years of his life, he would have regarded himself as a scientist.”
He carried out dissections himself, usually working through the depths of winter – when corpses would deteriorate much more slowly – and exposing himself to the risk of disease. “He would have had a limited but effective range of tools and he would have made rough notes which would be no doubt stained with blood which he would take to his clean studio. His powers of visualisation to hold an image in his mind and then put it down in that way that makes it so clear, is remarkable.”
But while he may have intended his efforts to form a book of knowledge for students to come, his famous inability to actually finish much of what he started means thousands of words of notes and hundreds of drawings scattered in no particular order. Nearly 2000 drawings languished in the Royal Collection for more than 200 years before finally being published – to the fascination even now of modern anatomy experts who recognise the sheer scale of the work but also areas in which Da Vinci even now seems to be breaking new ground.
Showing them alongside modern technology including CT and MRI scans is further proof of the master’s brilliance, adds Martin. “These modern images mirror the drawings in a way not seen before and have their own aesthetic quality on a par with da Vinci. They are quite beautiful.”
n Leonardo Da Vinci, The Mechanics of Man is at
The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, from
tomorrow until November 10.