I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Joana Alarcão for the online magazine Insights of an Eco Artist. I must admit that it was harder work than I expected. I’ve given a few interviews in the past and usually the questions are predictable, generic and a little boring. So I was a little surprised to be sent some more challenging questions specifically about my art practice.
I’m not sure how many people read these interviews, but I always find it a useful exercise trying to explain my art practice to someone. The interview can be found here.
Joana Alarcão is an interdisciplinary eco-artist and writer who works primarily within the concepts of social/environmental justice and culture. Her website is here.
A few years ago I gave an interview to the naturist magazine Clothes Free Life. Somehow I managed to delete the original blogpost about it. It was an interesting exercise as the questions were from a different perspective to your normal artist interview. So here is the link to the article:
“Man and Woman” is a painting that I thought was finished over ten years ago. I’ve suffered years of nagging doubts, and a real reluctance to show it publicly, such that I finally decided to rework it. It was only going to be a small amendment, but in the end I had to repaint the entire surface.
It’s debatable about how much the revision is an improvement. The poses are almost identical. Some people might prefer the earlier version. That’s irrelevant. I feel that the later revision is much closer to the painting that I tried to produce in 2009. Although the original version was no doubt true to the reference photos I was working from, I don’t think it captured a true likeness of the female figure.
I should explain something about the background to this painting. My partner had just passed away after a long illness, and in a splurge of activity I set about working on a series of paintings that recorded my lost partner and our relationship. Most had been planned while she was still alive (I had taken reference photos and made preparatory sketches), but sadly her poor health meant I was unable to work on them at the time. This was the last of that series, and for some reason it was the only one I was unhappy with.
The problem with resuming work on a painting after such a long time is that my painting technique has changed over the years. I still start with a monochrome underpainting, but my palette of colours has changed considerably, I use different mediums, and my use of glazes has become more restrained. Nevertheless it was an interesting exercise. The photo below shows a lighter palette in the revised painting.
Another interesting aspect of this exercise is that I no longer have the original reference photos. Much of the work on my late partner’s face was done from memory, which would normally have been outside my comfort zone. One area where my painting has changed is that I am less beholden to reference photos, and feel more confident to wander off track. I believe that I have achieved a better likeness here by doing just that. In writing this post, and looking at photos of the two versions side by side, it does feel like a lot of work for only a small change. But it was worth it. I feel happier showing it now.
Edit: “Man and Woman” has since been shortlisted for the LGC Art Prize 2023 A recent post about the competition can be found here: LGC Art Prize
A recent visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam compelled me to rework an old painting. It was the Rembrandts that did it. I painted my self-portrait “Halo” during a particularly difficult time in my life. I had become the carer for my terminally ill partner. People praised me for my fortitude, but I was aware of a disparity between how people saw me and how I truly felt. Deep down there was an awful darkness; a sense of despair. I tried to recreate this sense in a painting, but wasn’t completely successful.
Anyway, fast forward to March this year, and I had a splendid time visiting Amsterdam and studying the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum. Although there’s a very good selection of Rembrandts to be seen in London, I was captivated by the examples in Amsterdam – some really fine late Rembrandts. I could stare at them for hours. I marvel at the detail he could suggest in the shadows, with such economy. And there was such a sadness in those eyes. In looking at these wonderful paintings by the great master of portraiture, I felt a desire to revisit one of my earlier self-portraits: “Halo”.
I didn’t undertake many changes. Basically I added a few more layers of glaze, but this time I was a bit looser in the application and removal. It is easy to fall into the trap of becoming too precious when applying glazes. It’s the final stage, and the underpainting might have taken many hours to complete, so there’s an obvious reluctance to mess it up with a sloppy final layers. But looking at those old Rembrandts, what struck me is the spontaneity of the most beautiful passages in his paintings. He wasn’t afraid of messing them up.
The Gleaners – a painting about social exclusion and inequality
It took much longer than expected, and I made a few changes along the way, but I finished it in the end. “The Gleaners” started off as a simple reimagining of the Millet painting of the same name. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to produce, but ideas don’t always transfer smoothly onto the canvas. As with the subject of Millet’s painting, I wanted to say something about social exclusion and inequality.
It all began when I happened upon a still image from the 1978 film “The Shout”. Susannah York is seen scurrying across the floor on all fours, like some primeval creature. I saw similarities in this pose with the main figures in Millet’s “The Gleaners”, and immediately set about composing a contemporary version of that painting, with the creepy black and white photo of Susannah York as reference for the main figures. And that was the start of my problems.
I actually started this project just over a year ago! Early progress between first sketch and the initial underpainting was good. But there is a month between each of the three progress photos shown here (above and below,) and there’s not a great deal of progress. By the end I had even thrown in a SpaceX Starship departing a desolate wasteland in the distance. But for all my tweaks, the main figures of the gleaners were just not progressing.
And then I watched a tv documentary that changed everything.
It was an episode of the Art Mysteries (Sky Arts) where the wonderful Waldemar Januszczak uncovers secret meanings hidden within Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. You can watch it on YouTube here.
Gainsborough may have been alluding to the Enclosure Acts, which denied commoners access to what had previously been common land. The intended theme for my painting was social exclusion and inequality, so I thought it quite apt to borrow the layout from “Mr and Mrs Andrews”. It also offered a tidy way of opening up the stage, allowing the introduction of more actors. Fenced off green fields were a fitting backdrop for what I was trying to say, and I could bring the desolate wasteland to the foreground.
I would like to say that it was all plain sailing from then on. But that wasn’t the case. The change of background helped, and I added a number of figures to the group, which worked well. But the problem was with the “gleaners” in the foreground. From the very inception of this project over a year ago, they were meant to be the focal point of this painting. And I couldn’t get these emaciated figures to work.
Search for a life model
By this stage (August 2022) I realised that I would have to find a model to work with, in order to finish these three figures. I posted about it here. Luckily I found a model who was interested in the project and had a great look for the painting. In fact, the whole look of the painting changed after working with her. Out went the emaciated look, in came the haunting backward stare. From here on it was plain sailing, and the painting was finished for its debut at the Cluster Contemporary Art Fair.
I had a difficult conversation about this painting at the recent Cluster Contemporary Art Fair. A Ukrainian woman approached me and asked me to explain it. I don’t think she was happy with what I said. First, I should make clear that I see only one aggressor in this war in Ukraine, and I admire the dignity and bravery of the Ukrainian people. But that is not what this painting is about.
Clearly I was mocking Putin, naked on his golden throne with rickety wooden legs. And having Macron with Boris Johnson wearing theatrical costumes is obviously questioning their motivation for their actions on the world stage. Biden cheering on from a distance is a comment on the US’s stance in this war. No, what puzzled this woman was the relevance of the naked men wrestling.
Many visitors who saw this painting at Cluster Contemporary spotted the reference to old photos of wrestlers by Eadweard Muybridge, and also to Francis Bacon’s Two Figures, which had used the Muybridge photos as a reference.
This is not a noble painting about Ukrainian heroism. Instead it is a grubby little story about you and me: it’s about everyone cheering their chosen sides from the safety of their living room; it is about how a primal conflict to the death by two warring races has become an exciting spectacle for the rest of the world; it is about my shame in feeling any excitement at missiles raining down on Russian tanks and troops; it is about my sadness over what we have become.