Tuesday 3 October 2023

The human prism


I'm interested in visual responses to the world which clearly show that they've passed through a human. The opposite of realism, certainly of hyper-realism.

There is no human who looks like this:

Or like this:

And that's not the point of such images. They channel ideas, feelings, energies, meanings.

Something that humans often seem to do when they process the world is to regularise things. Despite the fact that plants, animals and humans in the actual world are never symmetrical or evenly proportioned, humans often like to make them so. There are no repeating patterns in nature. If you look at a sea shell or a zebra, you'll see that though there's a basic idea that may repeat itself, the way that the repeat emerges is always in some way unique to itself, even as part of a pattern.

Though there may be mathematical rules that provide constraints and generate a type, the actual emergence into the world of the shapes of a general pattern all vary from each other in small ways.

Humans take this in, and seem to like to play with tidying it up into regularity.  I find the result of this tidying up process, which shows me that the rose passed through a living human, far more interesting than images that attempt to reproduce the irregular variations of the living original.

The idea, or feel, of a tree, rather than a representation of its actual form...

Having spent the last year or so trawling Indian, Assyrian and Egyptian reliefs and paintings for images that create the feel of plants rather than their exact forms, I've just recently remembered the wonderful craziness of mid-century design.

Human was here, a responding human. 

Friday 29 September 2023

Expressing or responding?

I often come across the idea that 'real artists' are 'so talented' that they can just draw stuff, like, brilliantly. It's there within them, they were born with that capacity. There's a closely linked idea that what artists make comes from some secret place of genius within them; some source of originality and differentness that's not given to ordinary people. 

As a basically unschooled person, I absorbed this idea from the culture around me, unconsciously. I knew I wanted to draw and paint, but when I got to St Martins School of Art in the late 70s, I was told that drawing from life was reactionary, old hat, conventional, stuck in the past. So I dutifully made my way to the abstract room, and lined my 18 year old self up with a bunch of other youthful furrowed brows, working studiously on canvases that had to be a minimum of six foot wide. I waited for the stuff to start pouring from me, like it was supposed to. Didnae happen. I decided that if something was supposed to pour out of me, perhaps first it needed to pour into me, arranged a year off, and went off to Oman to become a disc jockey. Travelled the length of India by train, dropped in to Burma, sweated in Hong Kong, visited the art treasures of China in Taipei. In fact, the pouring in lasted for the next thirty years, and even when I properly started painting again my unconscious still had to trick me to get me past the idea that when the time was right the pouring out would simply just begin.

What I didn't know then was that, in fact, if you go into pretty much any artist's studio, you will see images that didn't come from them at all, all over their walls; torn off, cut out random images; photos and postcards; images made by old masters, designers, other artists. No-one ever explained to me that artists work, and they feed. They draw and paint and copy and design, experiment and practice, for years and decades (in fact anyone could do this, but most people simply don't, and then they complain that their drawing 'looks like a six year old's'....). Artists feed off colours and textures and shapes in the world, including the work of other artists, past and present. As Austin Kleon puts it, they steal; voraciously, from everywhere. They notice what they're drawn to, they collect, and then they respond.

    'You only speak because you want to react to something you've heard. The idea of an actor going away to their room and rehearsing something alone is an absolute nonsense to me. What you have to say is completely incidental. All I want to see from the actor is the intensity and accuracy of their listening. And then what you have to say will be automatic and then it will become free and alive. And then you can work on it and shape it and talk about it. But the basic kind of engine to it is how accurate is  your listening. And how alive are you to your fellow actors and how accurate your response, and how bold.'

Alan Rickman, interview on Instagram

Sometimes, my inherited cultural voices start to whisper 'But aren't you just being derivative? Why are you using the work of ancient artists in your paintings, why are you just copying stuff, instead of giving us your own original ideas?'

I'll tell you why. Because I'm having a conversation. I'm not interested in 'expressing myself, or creating a style, or working out what people might want to have on their walls. I'm always on the lookout for someone to have a visual conversation with, whether that someone be the human who made a symbolic object in 3,000 BC, or a 1950s designer abstracting plants in their own unique way.

Working with the world, as it presents itself to me.

Wednesday 26 July 2023

Moving slowly, thick undergrowth


Eventually, at the deliciously unhurried pace that oils not only allow but insist upon, I finished the first series of tiny oil experiments.

The richness of pigment in oil astonishes me. A thin layer of thinned down oil paint glows. When you put another layer on later, the glow gets deeper. When you put on a layer of a different colour, the optical mixing is breathtaking.

And now for the second series of tiny experimental paintings, accompanied by one slightly larger.

There have been a number of technical problems with finding the right mix of black stuff to create the right kind of black line. The linen paper drags at the folded pen nib, the folded nib clogs up with the acrylic/gesso mix. The oil layers make a shine that the gesso removes when on paper. 

All of this subtly affects the quality of the line, which has to be drawn more slowly. I can't sweep at speed like before. Forms disobey my hand, blobs arrive. The energetics of the whole painting change. 

The slowness is ecstatic.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Cycling quietly through the brick wall


I wrote a post recently about my decision to have another attempt at seeing if I could learn to use oil paint in a way that worked for what I'm trying to do. I posted my messy smears as a protest against future frustrations, hoping it would help me to not get precious about whatever happened, and to try to help me to keep going through the disappointments that had ended up against brick walls in previous attempts over the years.

To my surprise, the walls have not really appeared so far, and I feel I'm starting to feel the simple rewards of not giving up. Any of it. Perhaps I needed to do a great deal of experimenting and learning about colour with acrylic first. The acrylic painting taught me that I loved thin paint and layers, and that acrylic could be used in this way. It let me hang on to my inky black line, and eventually it taught me that I didn't want to stay within lines of any kind. It let me learn a way of playing with figuration that was not tonal realism, and it helped me to learn about a process that wanted to be free to be itself, unhindered by my thoughts and desires and intentions.

One of the things that has facilitated what feels like a tiny, quiet leap forward has been the discovery of Seawhite's linen-textured oil painting paper. It's a most beautiful surface, like a fine white linen, but it lets you draw with ink and behaves mainly like paper. 

I was also helped through the maze of 'fat over lean' by a painter friend who explained that all the vague instructions about this online seemed to have been missing one key point; that whatever mix of medium/solvent/oil you use, you can always thin this down further with solvent. Liberation (at least until someone tells me why it's not a good idea to do this...).

The two little paintings above have had the most layers and time. The ones below are in various states of undress.

Exploring different ways of going over the line, and different ways of letting one colour meet another...

Smudgy softness, thin paint and solvent...

The same thin paint, a little less smudgy, some brushstroke edges...

Bolder and denser colour in the first layer, with more defined paint edges (that are going more obviously over the edge of the form...).

Writing this here to keep track of myself.

Thursday 6 July 2023

Today I'm studying how to make birds


I quite often read people on facebook berating themselves for having a mind that wanders, for starting one thing and ending up doing another. They've perhaps internalised a cultural idea that we're supposed to be 'keeping focussed'; finding our path and then setting about carving it deeper. Deciding what our art is about and sticking to that. Learning skills that will help us achieve our goals.

This is the opposite of what a creative process is for me. I try to attend to an allowing that will gently peel me off any ideas I might have about what I'm supposed to be doing. I welcome the arrival of an unexpected idea, or finding myself pursuing something that I had no idea was waiting to be explored. Something knows. If I shut up and follow, a deeper part of me which feels the world without thought or words always knows where to go next.

Today I'm studying how to make birds.

Thursday 29 June 2023

Just keep going

'...if you want to create, sit down, lower your head in deference to the task ahead and get to work. But get out of art's way!' (Nick Cave)

Yesterday the road ahead to painting with oils seemed, if not completely blocked, certainly strewn with great tangled clumps of thorny brambles. 'Keep going', that's all. Just keep going. Today I feel rather more hopeful.


Wednesday 28 June 2023

'We are in service to art, not the other way round'

It turns out that the unknown that was and is still beyond me is currently oil painting. I bought some oil paints over ten years ago, but have been put off by the solvent vapours, and the texture and nature of canvas. 

Some time during lockdown I had another go at canvas, using thin acrylic. Something was there, but I just couldn't abandon the lively ink line that had first greeted me back in India in the 80s, which had been insisting on itself ever since. So I had an ink line on canvas, thin paint, but then what? There was nothing better about canvas than ink on paper, and the paint soaked in and I lost my rough brush mark edges.

I tried giving up my inky line...

The problem was my training in line-free tonal drawing. It's magical, what you can do that way, but for some reason I didn't want to rest there. I can do the tonal thing, the life-capture or life-inspired thing, but it's been done, by me and others, a million times, and I just didn't want to go there. So then I tried putting the line on top.

But again, nothing seemed to be gained compared to my usual thin acrylic on paper. 

A bit later I decided to 'take myself in hand' and 'really focus on learning about oil paint'. I put myself on a little self-study course, trying to get to grips with layers and solvents and 'fat over lean'. It whispered something to me, but with a spirit now allergic to trying to learn things formally, I stalled, unable to see how to take it forward.

My mind/intention was trying to do what my cultural conditioning told me I was supposed to do (discipline myself to 'learn my scales' before being allowed to play and have fun...), but my spirit wasn't having it.  I was soon back to more spirit-guided weirdness, working on paper in response to poems of a composer.

There were already so many issues going on at once. The endlessly vexed question of subject matter, working figuratively but not directly from life. The nature of materials and tools, learning anew with every painting. The challenge of colour. The mystery of a process that continually takes things in directions that don't originate in my conscious mind. 

I could have gone on working with the ink line, paper and thin acrylic for the rest of my life and never run out of things to explore. But as soon as something starts to fly, become a little series, it as quickly runs out after a few paintings, because somehow it becomes glib, it becomes repetition, even if every time something is learned anew. As the summer arrived and I was able to open my windows to aerate the smell of solvent and linseed oil, a tiny promise from months ago to try oils again began to insist.

This time I didn't start with little test pieces. I smeared some stuff on two bits of lovely textured paper, and then I just did a big fat doodle in the ink line and acrylic style on a larger piece of canvas pinned to a board. It is all precisely how not to do oil painting, but this is the way I have to do it; in order to simply play, in order to explore rather than feel that I'm following someone else's instructions.

Then I got over my childish rebellion just a little and tried what I imagined to be more measured and proper approach (random subject matter, some Victorian relative photos currently on my living room floor...). Perhaps this is an underpainting?

I'm beginning to understand now that you never have to worry about losing density or richness by being thin, because this is oil paint. It's a sumptuous miracle. All the things I tried to do do make acrylic stay thin but build density without going plastic shiny.... well goddamn, I don't have to work with any of that because this is oil paint. I have woken up in my best dream, even though I have no idea what to do.

There are huge challenges ahead, if I ever get past just trying to work out fat over lean. I don't always want the neat blending that oil facilitates, I've come to like the way that fast-drying acrylic leaves an edge, that can then be worked over. If I give up my line, how will I deliberately transgress the limits  that demarcate a form...something I deliberately like to do with my acrylic and ink (which for me has a metaphysical resonance, as well as being an aesthetic choice)?  Will a painted line carry the same charge? There will be times when it's going to feel all wrong, when it's no longer fun, when one of these problems will overcome me and leave me feeling helpless.

I don't know the answer to these questions. But perhaps I'll find something that I could never have dreamt of with ink and acrylic, something that I still can't dream of but may discover if I don't lose my courage.

'Art moulds us into the shape it wants us to be and the thing that serves it best...Art doesn't like being told what to do. It doesn't like me getting in the way' (Nick Cave).