Through the Looking Glass

My fingers have been hovering over this blog post for weeks, maybe longer. What a can of worms. Everything I try to write leads me down rabbit holes, up walls and round many, many bends. It's a big and complicated beast this abstract art stuff. So perhaps it is easier to start with what this post is NOT about.

Firstly, this is not a history lesson. If you do want a quick referesher The Tate has a great glossary of terms that you can dig into if you fancy. Secondly, this is not a 'how to' guide - either on how to decipher a painting and certainly not is it how to paint one. It is essentially an exploration of how I am moving between figurative and abstract painting. It's a bit of a ramble and a way for me to unravel my own thoughts, so at times it may not even make sense. But that's a great metaphor for art anyway, so lets move on.

So, it all started back in September 2014. I returned to painting and drawing after a break of about 20 years, and for the most part this was in the life room.

 One of my first Life Drawings of Felix. November 2014.

One of my first Life Drawings of Felix. November 2014.

I started once a week, then twice. Then it became a whole day and then another half day. Plus a couple of little courses thrown in for good measure.

 Profile of Laura from Portrait Painting Masterclass with Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco. May 2016.

Profile of Laura from Portrait Painting Masterclass with Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco. May 2016.

So quite clearly, despite Life Drawing being a controversial discipline in the art world, I am a big fan.

"The phrase 'the life room' elicts extreme reactions. It often smacks of reactionary aesthetics and dilettantish Sunday painters, a charge that extends to the belief that only the total eradication of the life room could free artists from a tradition that had strangulated generations. Indeed, by the late 1950s the life room had become synonymous with an old fashioned skills-based approach to the teaching of art that was stultifying innovation." - The London Art Schools: Reforming the Art World, 1960 to Now by Nigel Llewellyn

When starting something new, one of main barriers is often finding the time. By joining a regular, well organised class that time becomes scheduled and it soon became routine for me and the family. I also liked the fact that it was away from the house. Being self-employed and working from home it was good to have a change of scene - and the Studio at Draw, Brighton is a wonderfully inspiring room to work in. But perhaps most importantly for me, by joining a life class I also found a supportive community. It quickly came apparent that I wasn't the worst, or the best, or the oldest and there were plenty of other local people, like me, who for one reason or another wanted to draw and paint more. Plus it's always warm, you can go anytime of the day / week / year and there is tea and biscuits.

 The Doors of Perception (The Studio at Draw, Brighton)

The Doors of Perception (The Studio at Draw, Brighton)

So, technically speaking, when you don't know what your subject is and your muse is still waiting to make her entrance, the life room is a fantastic place to learn the tricks of the trade. There is the opportunity to explore all the mediums you can get your messy hands on and other people to help you use them. But most importantly, there is no better place in which to battle with the demons of scale, compositon, form, colour, weight and representation than in the life room.

 Mark on Blue. December 2015.

Mark on Blue. December 2015.

But, 18 months later, all my paintings started to look the same and that focus on really, really looking became a problem.

"... a life class has always been an artificial situation.... One sees a stranger naked and draws her well, although I think it's only the training ground, it doesn't seem to me to be the situation in which one makes an image." - Frank Auerbach

Essentially, I came to realise that capturing a good likeness does not mean, in the slightest, that you will create a good painting.

If only it was that simple.

 Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970)

Francis Bacon, Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970)

Around the same time, I also visited the Richard Diebenkorn exhibition at The Royal Academy and started to see how by concentrating on colour and form - you could, maybe take your eyes off the subject for a bit. There was a space in Art that wasn't simply just 'Figurative' or just 'Abstract'. I knew this was where I wanted to go, but didn't have a clue how to get there.

 Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape No.1 (1963)

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape No.1 (1963)

And this is for me, is when the great crashing, noisy, all-to-obvious-now-you-mention-it enormous reality hit me. The crux of it, actually, is that a truely great painting has to stand on it's own two feet. And actually, the greater the painting the less it has to do with the subject at all. Of course, I always knew this in someway in relation to other artist's work - say a Picasso for example. But suddenly I felt I had found a way to break out of the tight, figurative cycle I felt stuck in.

So, for example, if I paint a picture of a cat. You will judge the quality of that painting on how much it happens to look like an actual cat. You may have a preference on the colours, medium and style, but essentially it will work because you think I have captured the qualities you think are most important in cats, or even in a particular cat - if you are a cat person. Put simply, if you like cats you are more likely to like a painting of a cat than someone who doesn't like cats.

Anyway, this is not to say you can't have a great painting of a cat. But it has to have something extra. I'm not particularly a cat person, so lets change the subject - flowers.

 Monet, Water Lillies, Setting Sun (1907)

Monet, Water Lillies, Setting Sun (1907)

For the sake of this blog post, I am assuming that you believe, like me, that Monet's Waterlillies are some of the greatest Impressionist works of art in the World. So, to prove my point, although there are Waterlillies in this painting, there is so much more than that. The colour, light, movement, scale and use of paint becomes more important than the subject - to put it another way, the sum is greater than the parts. And, critically, the response becomes emotional, rather than rational. Louise Bourgeois is another example. Her Spiders are more spider-y than the real thing.

 Louise Bourgeois, Maman (1999)

Louise Bourgeois, Maman (1999)

Therefore, you can apply the same argument to abstract paintings. Because you are not bothered with placing the accuracy of the drawing on a scale of 1 to 10. You can start to appreciate the piece as an autonomous object.

 Kline, Black Iris (1961)

Kline, Black Iris (1961)

 Rothko, Light Red over Black (1957)

Rothko, Light Red over Black (1957)

And you start to engage with your feelings.

And that really is the point. I finally realised, despite years and years of looking at my subject and trying to render it realistically, I had to stop looking and start feeling.

 Sundowning. 2016.

Sundowning. 2016.

If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.” - Marc Chagall.