Tools of the trade
Though I am fascinated with many aspects of art history and practice, I try to restrict as best I can my enquiries into the portrait as a subject, other art forms as a referential subject in these portraits, the journey to understand and explore the physical media I use and the social relevance of art to a contemporary audience. When I start new work, though I initially plan to follow a course that I hope will progress a straight path, I may be diverted down avenues that were unplanned; this is the nature of painting, whether the audience and galleries like it or not.
Because I rarely paint sequentially, one work at a time (I have even occasionally returned to a painting after a five year hiatus), they feed off of each other stylistically and technically. If I found a manner of painting that I was happy to progress until the end of my career after only twenty years of experimenting, I would consider my work short of effort and application. To me painting is not a means to bread and wine. It is an exploration of my means to express myself in a manner I consider honest and meaningful. My work’s first audience is myself; any audience after that is secondary. To some it might seem selfish, pompous, undemocratic and self-righteous, but I consider it a strength. My work finds new methods that occasionally even surprise me. The huge varieties of finish and appearance that oil paint can take on, dependent on the vagaries of the oils and pigments within the paint, the coarseness of the canvas, the softness of the brush or the atmosphere and temperature of the studio cannot be learnt by book. You have to get up close and study the surfaces of the work of other painters and attempt to interpret their alchemical processes. You have to attempt to establish what was a fortunate accident and what was a moment of inspired intention. And most importantly, you have to know and understand the difference.
I did not go to art college, and so missed the opportunity to study painting for three years with the aspiration to a gallery career afterwards. Instead I left school, went to work, started a family and painted at home with far more commitment than most of my college friends. This is not an accusation of them or a defence of myself. They were obviously not as obsessively driven in progressing a personal understanding of painting. I am in my forties now and I am still studying. I am still looking for that mysterious formula that will allow me to leave the study of the medium so that I can apply it reliably and safely to any subject I choose to tackle.
I have mad aspirations to be the master of my medium. I delude myself that perhaps one day I will be able to conceive a painting in my imagination that I can transfer into the real world with sure and reliable accuracy through a process of mark making and medium manipulation that does not rely on any aspect of chance.
So I must learn what the materials do in as many circumstances and combinations as possible.
To this end I sketch, draw from life and work from photographic reference because it hones the ability to be sure that I am putting the mark in the right place on the finished work. If I am satisfied with my ability to coordinate hand and eye then I have one thing less to concern myself with. I have the satisfaction that if I distort the apparent ‘reality’ of my subject then I am doing it with purpose and not by accident.
But the medium is wholly different and unpredictable animal. I have woken in the morning to work that has changed overnight as the turpentine, linseed oils and pigments have continued their own avenues of experimentation in my absence.
Certainly I could avoid these occurrences by slavishly maintaining a fixed palette of very stable pigments, always using the same grades of oil and thinners, maintaining a consistent humidity and temperature in the studio and following safely worn tracks of drawing, priming, painting and varnishing process. But where would the opportunity of the fortunate accident be? It would be in another painter’s studio, and I want that magic for myself. I will not be left painting the same painting over and over until it is ‘right’.
So this is why my work sometimes revisits previous ideas and techniques, and why its technique sometimes radically changes from one finished piece to the next.
The one constant that I continually struggle with is to define the subject being painted without losing the wonderful physicality of its medium. To show the viewer that it is, after all, only paint on canvas – and that sometimes it can even be huge swathes of plain, gaudy, unmixed paint – paint that is knifed on so forcibly that the canvas rips and has to be stitched together. The audience need to see that it is just carefully arranged, artificially manufactured synthetic dirt on a portable cave wall.
Sometimes the mark I want can only be made by throwing the paint onto the canvas or squeezing it directly from the tube; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
When these applications of technique work, the sense of satisfaction is almost tangible. I assume it must be a similar feeling that an athlete gets from a good result in a race. Once I actually felt like a winner of the race when I finished one piece of work, but that has only ever happened with one painting that I can think of, ten years ago.
When I’m not satisfied with the results, particularly after working for weeks or months on a painting, the sense of failure is just as significant and equally affecting. If this seems melodramatic or extreme, then just return again to the sporting allusion. How is failure in sport taken by not only the practitioners, but the supporters too?
Imagine painting over a failed attempt or scraping the wet paint from the canvas that has been worked over so carefully and solitarily.
Now imagine having the obsessive drive to return the next day and face another canvas that you might ruin. Or worse still, a blank canvas. After a recently failed painting, a new blank canvas is like a school-yard bully – goading you to recognise the inevitability of your next quixotic failure and forcing you to acknowledge inadequacy in the arena you’ve chosen to compete.