“Girl’s head in profile with cap” (detail) by Euan Uglow
I learnt something today. In fact I learnt a lot… about painting. A friend works in the local Holburne Museum in Bath and she reminded me of an exhibition that I’d noted down to see but almost forgot. Well the show finished on Sunday so I popped down to have a look this afternoon. I can remember seeing Euan Uglow’s work pop up regularly in the glossy art press ads of the nineties. I can’t remember which gallery was pushing the work, but I can always remember thinking that his work was interesting. The paintings collected there, with only a couple of exceptions, were in my opinion excellent. I’ve never seen a collection of his work together so it was an interesting and new experience, and I damn happy that I managed to get my arse in gear to see them.
I can’t paint like Uglow; I don’t have the self-discipline. I may start with all intention of staying calm, cold and analytical but it all goes out of the window. At some point I’ll get a loaded brush and fling the paint at the canvas. Or I’ll get the palette knife out and scratch and stab furiously at a painting that’s annoying me through frustration. I couldn’t see any of that in Uglow’s work. Just a delightful, deliberate, measured care in every mark made. I got the feeling that these were paintings where every mark was considered, calculated and placed with absolute certain accuracy. It was beautiful; I was grinning like an idiot almost feeing the enjoyment and satisfaction that I’m sure he must have felt at the marks he made.
Though he’s not often defined as such the man was a brilliant colourist. Not in the manner of Matisse with singular primaries or clashing complementaries, but in the careful use of pastels and hued greys. I knew, from the paintings I’d seen reproduced in those old adverts in Modern Painters, that there was no doubt of Uglow’s credentials as a draughtsman. That was why I wanted to see this exhibition – like many others I consider drawing to be one of the fundamentals to great visual art and I knew his work would deliver on that front. But the show surprised me, and made me realise how much of a beginner I am in the field of painting. This man was a master painter; perhaps even the greatest painter this country has had in the last thirty years.
If the opportunity arises make sure you seek out any display of his work. Forget the subject of the painting – just ignore it. Get up close and look how he used paint. Study the very careful layering, and the deliberate variety of qualities and textures of paint used. Look at the inscribing and the spaces left unpainted, the under-painting and drawing. Look at his use of colour – and I mean REALLY look at it – I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Like I said, I can’t paint like Uglow. And if I could, it would be because I wanted to paint like Uglow – and that is not the right reason to attempt a ‘serious’ career in painting.