Action and response
A look back at the art I made in 2018 and what I learned along the way.
I started 2018 full of blind ambition, a giant canvas that barely fit through my front door, an aspiration to paint a masterpiece on it, and not much clue what I was doing. The result was an unconfident piece.
I was sort of obsessed with a single line motif and had a plan to create a dominating work that led the viewer into a maze of lines, taking their mind on a meditative journey. That didn’t really happen.
Dismayed by my attempts to ‘go big’, I decided to take a more realistic approach to developing my practice. One that didn’t require storing giant canvases in my tiny flat—I got sick of it taking up space and offered it for sale online. No takers, unsurprisingly. So instead, I snapped it in half and threw it in the commercial waste bins at the back of my building. Good riddance.
I started to fill a sketch book with collages. Collage allowed me to create quick pieces when I got a spare 15 mins. For some reason I decided to lay down washes of black with an acrylic paint pen and then collage over that. I’ve continued to run with that as a starting point for most collages since.
Looking back on these collages, they all feel a little flat and lifeless. They’re lacking in energy. They want to dance but just don’t seem to find the right rhythm. There are bits within them that I find interesting. Of course that’s the point of experiments, to practice, to fail, to learn.
In November I attended a short course ran by Emyr Williams at the RA. I went in with little expectations, hoping it would do nothing more than get me into the habit creating art more often. The course did much more than that, it fundamentally changed the way I think about making art.
It taught me to see the making of art not as the rendering of a preconceived idea but as a method of action and response. In simple terms, a process of making a mark and responding to it with another. Of course this is only one way of creating art and it leads to a certain type of art, particularly, painting abstraction. But you could argue to some degree that all good art is created through the artist connecting with what they’re seeing in the work and responding to that.
A byproduct of this method is that it’s rather freeing. I don’t need to ask myself what I want to create before I begin. If you look at a work like The Visit by Willem de Kooning you can begin to appreciate that there’s no way he could preconceive the end result.
Often we might find ourselves wanting to create a work that looks like something else. Another byproduct of this method is that it also gets me away from copying others work, though I’m reminded often that nothing is original. Below left are the results of an exercise I did during the art class. Below right is a mural I spotted whilst shopping in Liberty a week later. Uncanny, no?
I’m not exactly in love with the result of this painting (above left) but it was an excellent learning exercise. When I was creating it I first laid down a flat wash of yellow and with all the uncertainty in the world began detailing some of the shadows on the body. Emyr stood over me and instructed that I paint a bold red section in the bottom left. From there I was forced to respond to that red, so next came blue and green and then a neutral. This was the turning point for me understanding the action and response method. I ended up with something unexpected. I was connecting with what was happening on the canvas and the work was bolder and more confident as a result.
The next few paintings that follow were created on the last week of my course with Emyr. All three are part of a single exercise. First I was challenged to create marks with a range of mixed media on paper. No direction other than that, any mark would do but I had to use all the black media available, which was charcoal, pen, and I think ink and maybe graphite. Next, I cut up the paper and rearranged it. Again, no other instructions, just responding to what I saw and liked. You can see (below) that I created a little rule whereby I attempted to continue a line when placing the cut outs. Sort of like assembling a puzzle. The result is some quite interesting marks that change tone and quality haphazardly.
The next step was to use this collage (above) as stimulus for a new painting (below). Whilst looking at the marks I attempted to replicate their qualities. I re-enacted the gestures only this time in colour with Acrylics. But now I was not only responding to the collage but I also had marks on the new painting to respond to. Again, it was quite a challenge to get my head around the idea that responding to something doesn’t necessarily mean to copy or recreate it.
This painting (above) of a response to the collage was then effectively destroyed. I was asked to white-it-out by applying a wash of gesso (white primer paint) on top of the whole thing. Then, from that ghosted image, create a new work on top of it. The result (below) is my most intriguing work of the year. I say intriguing because it’s a work I never thought I’d create and since I haven’t made much like it, it doesn’t feel like ‘me’. But it is me, there’s loads of tiny decisions in each mark that are me.
I would like to be able to see this painting with fresh eyes, not knowing how I got the end result. I can’t get away from seeing a painting with an old painting showing through in the gaps. You can see in the lighter parts of the painting (below) where the old painting is showing through. It’s like one of those optical illusions that once someone has told you is actually an old woman’s face you can’t see anything else. Perhaps someone not privy to the process would see it as a whole? Not you though, cause I just told you how I made it.
The creation of this painting (above) also came with instructions. I was asked to paint a bold shape with two straight sides (blue triangle), to use some paper as a mask (weird red shape), daub at least seven times (the black dripping spots), use white, and some other things I can’t remember. These directions are an interesting way to inspire action when at the canvas. I intend to keep a list of these actions to hand when creating future works.
Since the course I’ve put some of what I learned into practice and have seen some good results in my experiments. The following works are examples of such experiments.
Next year I hope to make more, explore more, push myself more. I have no expectations of results, no targets or goals to hit. Only to make when I can and see where I end up.
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