Painting from Drawings

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A little piece I wrote about the process of painting from drawings for the above exhibition:

 

I first began visiting the Hebrides in 2006. My wife and I spent our honeymoon on Mull and began thereafter to visit the area regularly with trips to Eigg, Rum and Colonsay. It was an association with Winifred Nicholson’s paintings that provided the first impulse to go. She painted in many locations throughout the Hebrides and I have often found her slightly misunderstood and undervalued. She is of chief relevance as a colourist, one of the most vibrant and original in this country’s recent history, and her colour theories, more the poetic side of them than the scientific, have long been of curiosity to me. And it is no wonder she loved painting this area of the world, one can feel the divisions of the rainbow even on the greyest of days when light becomes pearlescent. However the collections of paintings I made over the subsequent five years from that first trip to Mull are not so concerned with colour. Firstly this was because I was pushing quite hard at this time, expanding the role of thick paint and its structural possibilities. Paint applied in a certain way (and for me the handling of paint is just another function of drawing) becomes a method of pictorial structuring, in the abstract or compositional sense, in its own right. The second reason is that, while almost all my paintings up to this point had been made directly from observation, the Scotland paintings were all done back home in the studio from drawings made on site. I find that, while the drawings can contain much information and many memories, they are not so useful as a way of recording very specific colour sensations.

 

Painting from drawings has both its plusses and minuses. On the plus side, the act of drawing condenses the experience of looking down to its essentials. There is less information to paint about and, so long as the drawing has successfully distilled the elements necessary to make the painting, one can hopefully paint more directly about the specific idea rather than being distracted by all the details which might be interesting and beautiful in themselves, but will only cloud and obscure what you want to say in the painting. It avoids, as my former teacher Trevor Felcey once put it, simply “chatting about appearances.” It is also practical. There is no need to carry a big canvas out onto the hills and guyrope it down against the wind. The downside is that you do not necessarily know what information you will need in the drawing to successfully complete the painting. Also, simply speaking, the drawing is a closed experience. There are less questions one can ask of it. It is a finite thing. But the biggest pitfall is that, instead of using the drawing as a mine of information, one is drawn into copying the marks in the drawing one is particularly happy with. This more often leads to a less intense, coloured copy of the drawing which somehow fails to have any of the atmosphere and excitement you felt about the place you were painting. Its only really when the painting begins to have an identity apart from the drawing that the painting can begin to develop. The drawing is there as a compositional reference, a carrier of the light as seen at the time, and a conduit to the remembered experience of looking and making the drawing, and the excitement of trying.

 

Despite these drawbacks I still find painting from drawings far more useful than painting from photographs. Cameras do not see how people see, particularly people who draw, and I find that the way the world appears in a photograph is not at all related to how I saw it. Painting from one for me is just to make another picture, whereas the making of a drawing from life involves an imaginative digestion of the subject, and an act of empathising with it.

 

The best thing painting from drawings did for me was to allow the painting to develop a greater structural freedom. The danger of painting from life is that, if not fully focused, one can fall into the trap of merely copying or describing what one sees. I was pushing quite hard towards abstraction at this time and the act of painting from drawings allowed me to pursue this in a more experiential way, rather than just making it up, which I find makes committing to the painting as a specific idea much more difficult. Things become too open. I have always believed that a painting should be about something (even completely abstract paintings) otherwise one ends up with just another picture, and the world already has too many pictures.

 

Above all, however they are made, my paintings are about visual celebration. I fell in love with The Hebrides and they are all I wanted to paint for about five years. It’s not just the sea, the mountains and the white sandy beaches with nobody on them. Its also the sheer amount of life there; birds, flowers, otters. Its an area yet to lose its wildlife, unlike the rest of Britain, and for me, its in our wildlife and countryside (and art) that our true and common heritage lies, not in Kings, Queens and wars. The area has a rough beauty, despite its more tender, peaceful moments, a quality I like in paintings, and I find it beautiful in any weather. I am not a painter who deals much in philosophy (painters aren’t generally qualified, although we like to talk the talk), and not at all in politics in any deliberate way. I celebrate beauty where I find it, and that has always been the main attraction in painting for me, and provides the initial impulse to draw or make a mixture. It’s a huge regret to me that our materialist culture has degraded the word beauty so much, to the extent that one feels embarrassed to talk about it, or even believe in it. If there is anything political going into my work then it’s a response to this.

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