I have a morning in which to paint. For the last 5 or 6 months I have been busy doing everything but paint – building a website, creating business cards, exhibiting work (the Deptford show was interesting and will, hopefully, lead to some collaborative activity). They say that artists spend 20% of their time creating, the rest is working or all of the activities that support creating. Certainly my experience bears this out – at Rhizome (our Artist’s collective – www.rhizome-ac.webs.com) 5 of us talked about what we had been doing recently and future plans, and in each case we were very busy – holding shows, preparing for shows, having meetings, going to arts events and we all bemoaned the fact that we didn’t have time to create, and pledged to make more time for this in the future.
Actually, I’m not painting but laying down some gesso on 4 canvas boards. This is a creative process for me. I am intrigued by the belief that a painting is a product of a journey, where paint is gradually built up, often obscuring what went before – but all layers contribute to the final product. Is this true? And how is it true? One aspect of coming late to painting is that you question everything, often from a practical, ‘how can that be so’ angle. How can a layer of paint that is painted over be important? The process of becoming an artist, for me, has gradually pushed back these question, making space for creativity to happen. I am still a novice and can get thrown when strongly challenged by the ‘how can that be’ question, but in the safety of my studio I can play with ideas. Take gesso – I have been trained in, and applied, the technique of laying down gesso (applying with brushstrokes in different directions for each layer, sanding between layers and so forth) and seen it applied expertly to great effect (see the work at http://www.oonawagstaff.wordpress.com).
In my latest series of paintings, provisionally titled ‘presence’, I have been experimenting with the application of paint – applying many thin layers to allow the resolved piece to emerge. As part of this research I have applied the gesso gesturally, where the brush-marks provide a rough texture over which the diluted paint is applied, thereby introducing a layer, although ‘hidden’, whose relief will show in the resolved piece. In the first attempts at this process, this textured surface can be seen in certain areas of the painting, and in others the thin layers have troughed in the valleys of the texture, and in elsewhere the brush has dragged against the ridges, causing streaks of paint to appear. I feel that these effects combine to add to the composition and to increase the sense that there is some hidden and underlying structure (indicating presence?).
Today, I as I applied the gesso to each board, I held in my mind a particular artist, and used brushstrokes that seemed to reflect that artist – zig zags and straight lines for Auerbach (as in Primrose Hill), geometric shapes from Kandinsky, a reclining figure for Rodin (as seen in his centenary exhibition) and a composition from Raphael (a sense of foreground, mid-ground and distance that I used for my Self-Portrait in the Cloth series). I did this intuitively, but as I worked I reflected on what I was doing. At one level, it was a piece of fun – the brushstrokes in the gesso would be largely obscured by overpainting, so I wasn’t going to be held to account (I am acutely aware that in referencing the greats I could be accused of something, not sure what, but I try and ignore this and follow my instincts); and pragmatically I was creating the rough texture I desired.
Thinking more deeply, I realised I had found a mechanism for bringing into play artists whose work I had studied for many hours (in the original and reproduction). With significant artists it is often difficult to find a way of holding their meaning for you in your work (without it being a deliberate act, a significant part of your practice). I was particularly aware of this in my foundation year, which seemed to focus on 20th century artists I was surprised that there was no room for my favourites (Rembrandt, Raphael, Blake etc.) on what was a very good course, and I draw this cartoon in my sketchbook in frustration.
I am intrigued to find out whether this act of putting a reference to these artists in the foundation of my painting will have any influence on the subsequent work – one way, perhaps, of analysing whether the end product is a culmination of all previous work.
Two aspects of my current of my practice that comes under scrutiny is the lack of evident composition and the thinness of the paint. I like having my work critiqued (as drilled into us at PCA). The first four works of this series have had several informal crits, and the painters all say the same thing – manage your colour better, build up the layers (on the one hand, if most painters say this, then they must be right; on the other, hearing one after another say the same thing suggests a groupthink?). I guess, coming to painting later than most, I have the freedom (or make the mistake) of being driven in my painting by the intangible idea that I’m interested in, rather than the technique. I can paint ‘properly’ (see the Yup’ik work), and will continue to develop my technique, but with a brush and a canvas, I want to investigate. Presence – can I capture a sense of presence figuratively, as in Yup’ik (Presence I and II)? And if so, what if I diminish the figurative element, as in Mask Lifecycle (I-IV). And finally, what is I have no figurative element, as in the Presence series, can I still evoke a sense of presence in the viewer? This exploration sits within my experience of Heidegger (concealing and unconcealing) and my general enquiry into the seen and unseen (or the seen, the experience, the seen differently).
To do this, I need to work with paint in the way that gives me the best chance of holding this question in my work; to see whether, in one piece at least, something of presence can be revealed without directly figurative clues(?).. A sense of pre-planned or thought/worked through colour theory, or composition isn’t really very helpful, it is taking me away from my aim – in fact it corrupts my aim. We’ll see. I’ve adopted the stance that I will pursue this idea as far as I can, then see where I land.