Friday, March 28, 2008
Colour Notes I
An inventory of the names on the labels on all the tubes that so far have been squeezed in the service of this picture would read as majestically as Homer’s epic list of ships. You might from that expect the colour orchestration of the work to be as lavish as in the tone poems of Richard Strauss (with the risk of being as lurid as in those of Respighi) and yet the painting on the wall of my studio seen at any distance is in most lights, a relatively sober affair.
Any detail however, will show the variety of pigments present and the relative purity of their mixtures (e.g. almost no use of black with any of the colours).
As is so often the case in art some larger thing than the actual passages and sections that one is concentrating on will eventually dominate the painting’s character. This overall identity might run counter to any plan and be wholly beyond the artist’s powers of prediction. Similar subverting of intentions is the process after all that gives us for example such oxymoronic emblems as the melancholy clown.
Of all the art forms painting is the most like alchemy. It has much in common with that other unsinister alchemical craft, cookery. Who could predict for example that a mixture of potato leftovers and yesterday's gone-cold greens, when mixed and fried up, would produce that magical and uniquely flavoured dish we call bubble and squeak?
An artist’s manual, with its many recipes for grounds and glazes, its guide to the use of arcane implements and its roster of recommended procedures (e.g. “start lean end fat” meaning don’t use too much oil in the underpainting) is very much like a cookery book. Completely to ignore the precepts of handbooks can lead to disaster as with Leonardo’s self-destructing medium for mural painting or Reynolds’s fatal use of bitumen; yet every chef would understand Picasso’s dictum “If I can’t find the red I use green”. They would also be quick to see the truth in Frank Auerbach’s reply to criticism of the dangerous looking thickness of his paint, “What counts is whether you put it on with love”. Give two cooks the same book and they will come up with different results. As with painting, when garniture serves substance and all is unified, spice against spice, the final dish transcends the recipe.
Here in my own picture, partly through ignorance and partly through the invitation of chance, I find myself producing a thing of unexpected mutability. At differing times of day the colour field presented can range from an aura of mossy green to a slightly baleful purple. In the early morning it may have a blue cast (reminding me of old Westerns shot in Eastmancolor), whereas when seen by electric light alone all the acid fire of reds and yellows awake as if from a sleep to illuminate a quite other kind of battlefield.
Every picture of course is changed in some degree by varying light but none (at least of mine) has ever surprised me with such a range of moods.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Over a print-out of the picture in its current state (as seen above) I make another drawing. It shows how I am gamely trying to control the present while predicting the future and tinkering with the past. Such diagrams of shifting thought rapidly become palimpsests, as from a pictorial Satnav unreliably installed, of pathways rejected almost as soon as they are proposed.
The encounter I recently described, where paranormal planes of colour rise disembodied out above the picture’s surface until the whole work seemed to be made of shimmering veils, now seems less disconcerting. Finding that the phenomenon is not unique to this painting has helped. I discovered that a picture I have been working on in my Oxford studio produces the same sensation. It only needed a short stare to make this canvas in its turn yield up similar hovering illusions of depth. This picture, also long worked on and as yet untitled, is painted in the manner of a mosaic. In a sense it is a study for the work I am doing in Westminster Cathedral. The insistent patterning of the tesserae engenders in this case its own layer of black, a spidery phantom which floats well free of all other colours, as if to illustrate Dr Johnson’s wittily abstract definition, in his great dictionary, of a net... ‘anything reticulated or decussated at regular intervals with interstices between the intersections.’
Friday, March 14, 2008
Having now found the off switch to the spooky illusion of colour stratified in space (though still indulging in the occasional vivid trance of depth) I return to other anxieties, especially to do with how the painting itself has taken over in a different way.
Just as the novelist reaches a certain point where his characters, empowered by a sudden and mysterious accession of free will, begin to act and speak for themselves and to contradict their creator’s intentions, so the artist is surprised when the shapes and colours and configurations of elements in his painting start to clamour for a similar autonomy. They argue with the painter and amongst themselves. The artist who started as captain becomes an umpire as well.
The last thing I do every night is look in the studio to inspect the day’s work, and think about the general state of play. Also, unbreakfasted and teeth as yet unbrushed, it is the first thing I do each morning. I like to see whether, say, yesterday’s radical gesture has been absorbed by the image as a whole. It is a constant of infanthood to imagine one's toys and dolls having a communal life of talk and action when their owner sleeps. So with that same infant optimism I look to see if any problems have been resolved while my eyes were shut.
This can also prove be the Frankenstein moment when a picture that one left in apparent calm seems to have had a bad night and groans its dissatisfaction at recent changes.
As I move eastward across the surface I realise that new manoeuvres affect the mood of previous work and at the moment all is distinctly unquiet on the Western Front. Certain marks are pressing for revision, for a second chance. While one begs for fusion with a neighbouring element another is suing for divorce from its present partnering.
Making such sorties backwards in the picture to dress a wound or reset a bone has its own peculiarity. I find that although the language of the picture is consistent, the past has a slightly different dialect. This was especially true when remaking the initial panel in the image’s far North West territory. In terms of colour alone, I found in that region that I did not have (almost a year ago) on my palette the prussian side of the blue scale but was rooting cool areas in ultramarine alone. Thus I had the choice of readopting the old colour dialect or infiltrating (as if on a modest time machine) news from the future. I chose the latter course.
But at least I am still in charge. However, I know from experience that a moment will come (months away as yet) when the work banishes its creator. In the end it is the painting that declares itself finished.
The artist does not necessarily know when the mark he has just made is the last. He will enter the studio one morning and find, almost with brush poised, that the picture is as out of bounds as a taped-off crime scene.
It must then be accepted WAF as the book dealers’ catalogues say, with all faults. If the artist wants to improve things his only option is to do so with another painting.
Friday, March 07, 2008
(Seated one day at the easel…)
Something strange has occurred with the painting, unique in my experience.
As in the chilling stories of M R James this account begins prosaically…
I am in my studio chair with the winter light about to fade. It is teatime and I look across to my painting arrayed on the wall, hoping to identify some progress. A sudden shaft of lemony light illuminates the centre of the picture giving its colours new vivacity.
Concentrating on that troublesome area where much has yet to be resolved and where an indecisive hole of underpainting is still exposed. I notice with surprise that the surrounding tracery of paint seems to quiver as if trying to detach itself from the surface of the panel. A cloud passes and the effect disappears but after a few minutes, in another glare of low sunlight, it reasserts itself. I can now unequivocally experience parts of the picture lifted, as if on another plane, free of the mostly subdued colours of the random underpainting. As the light fades to evening greyness so the perturbation ceases, and when I switch on the electric light all returns to a fixed normality.
The following morning painting proceeds as usual. Returning from lunch however I find the studio more intensely lit, and soon, as if raising a spirit, I can begin to lift a layer of overpainting into the thin air above the surface of the panels in that same area. This now floats an apparent inch or so in space in front of the rest of the paint. I discover also that this is not a merely local phenomenon but one that can be summoned over the whole area though initially most apparent where the underpainting has been left alone. While the light holds I acquire the knack of switching the apparition on and off.
The next day I am disappointed (and also almost relieved) not to see parts of the painting floating free. But once more, after lunch the light becomes denser and the coloured veil begins to lift unbidden. Now with more constant illumination from a clear sky I find a second layer and then a third projected one in front of the other occupying a conjectured three inches or so.
In essence this follows the rules of recessive and foregrounding colours that one learns at art school, with red things looking nearer and blue things further away etc. My Euston Road training with Euan Uglow and others still conditions me to think of a London Bus as turning lilac by degrees as it drives into the distance.
Here the colours do not follow the rule strictly: some reds hang back and some blues reach forward. Lightness and darkness also play their roles in relative position.
Still gripped by the novelty of the experience I wander mentally between the layers and find I can separate at least five of them out, the nearest of which now feels to be six inches or so in front of the panels. This front layer is sparsely occupied by otherwise homeless bright spots some of which travel through from the distant underpainting.
In the days that follow I both savour and resent the illusion for now I do not need, so to speak, to make any effort to have lift-off; it is always there and distractingly magical.
The phantom dimensions that are engendered and, with each looking, become more clear are not part of a rounded world but like theatre flats, or rather gauzes since they have no solidity. The nearest analogy is the world as presented by those stereoscopic photographs seen through a viewer which were so popular in the early days of photography. A great illusion of depth is produced but only in terms of receding two dimensional layers whereby papery people stand in front of wafer-thin houses against a background of flat trees.
The only difference here is that, in an abstraction, these divisions are only made of colour with no objective identity. Thus I peer through brane beyond insubstantial brane of patterning in which the colours have lost the physicality of pigment. They merely seem suspended in the air unattached to anything but the imagined plane which they inhabit (and which cannot itself in any way be seen).
I certainly had no such goal in mind when I started the work and do not see it as necessarily adding quality to the image. It is merely an epiphenomenon of the way in which the picture is made, however beautiful it is to experience as it grows in depth and complexity.
In a real M R James story, or a tale by Edgar Allen Poe, the layers would of course continue to advance across the studio until I became snared in their intricate webs and entrapped by the thing I had created……. if, therefore, this account suddenly peters out and there are no more entries you will know what has happened.