PROSPECT

I have a small exhibition opening at the Naze Tower, Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex on June 22nd. Titled Prospect, it is a joint exhibition with painter Jane Frederick, looking at aspects of the relationship of the Tower to the surrounding landscape.

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We are producing a small brochure to accompany the exhibition designed by Noah Carter Studio. The following is my text from the brochure:

My usual way of working is to walk in the landscape and to see what presents itself. Since the Spring I have been making drawings from the Naze Tower, 26 metres above the landscape. You can see 20 miles along the coast, everything mapped out below, but the viewpoint is very much static and you have to accept what is there before and beneath you. The real sensation of the view is that exhilarating sense of vertigo and flight that high places induce; of visually launching out into space, of seeing things in a bird-like way wheeling beneath you, being aware that the horizon is not only ahead but also at your side and behind you. Our usual assured sense of up and down, of ground and air is now held loosely as the landscape corresponds more to a carpet than a window.

I have emptied out the language of the paintings, making them less sure of themselves, disrupted and disorientated, allowing in a rush of air, an envelope of light.

The small postcard paintings started as direct transcriptions of the drawings I made from the Tower. The charcoal drawings were made in the studio figuring out issues in the small canvases.

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photo by Noah Carter Studio

photo by Noah Carter Studio

THE NAZE TOWER

I have been drawing from the Naze Tower. Built in 1720 as a seamark by Trinity House and over 26m tall, it has 8 floors linked by a 111-step cast iron spiral staircase. From the top there are extensive views over the Naze, the Backwaters and South towards Walton-on-the-Naze and Frinton-on-Sea. The Tower opened to the public in 2004 and contains a small museum, a teashop and several floors of art gallery.

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I have often thought it would be interesting to work from the top of the Tower, so when it reopened for the season on 1st April I began making drawings, mapping out the view. I think what I’m interested in is that sense of flight and disorientating vertigo; watching gulls and jackdaws wheeling below, between me and the ground begins to disrupt a normal sense of up and down, of ground and horizon and of how you orientate what you see.

In the studio I’m beginning to look at ways to break up the coherence of the painting surface, so it doesn’t very quickly become a view, but has a sense of wheeling bird-like over and in the space of the landscape.

There is a nice circularity to this as I have been invited to exhibit some of the resulting work in the Tower in June this year. News to follow…

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Format

I have been deploying the elements of the recent landscape in varying formats; seeing what happens when things used to make a squarish painting are reused in a circular format, or when a horizontal format is replaced with an upright one.

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It is less about painting things seen than looking at how those elements that arise in the painting process in the studio can be used to transfigure experience into paint. The drawings supply a vocabulary or lexicon rather than acting an aide memoire to reconstructing a ‘scene’.

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There is a difference between making a picture and making a painting.

Landscape

I can’t deny that my subject matter is landscape, and a very particular one close to the studio. The paintings are generated by and measured against the experience of walking in the landscape, a degree of personal knowledge and history of the places I go and the process of observation set down in drawings.

But the paintings exist parallel to the landscape in a metaphoric relation to it. They are firstly made and judged as paintings independent of subject. I’m not sure they are ‘about’ the landscape but they are enabled by close and sustained contact with the particular.

Or…

they are indeed landscape paintings and come about by being very familiar with a certain set of motifs and subjects and by being open to being continually transfixed by the same things rather than be bored (although being bored is a useful response too). The paintings that emerge are about all sorts of things, the subject matter not necessarily being the most important.

Doubt

Doubt accompanies all you do as a painter, at least if you think about what it is you are doing. There are times when everything works and makes sense, but there are other times when you question even the simplest things you do and the whole business seems to fall apart.

I have been thinking about the processes I go through to sustain the work in the studio; walking and drawing in the landscape, going to places that have to be accessed on foot, only recording with basic drawing materials on A4 paper. I never feel any one drawing is complete in itself; they are phrases or sentences in a continuing dialogue and so in order for this dialogue to continue the places need to be close to the studio. And then I think that there is nothing that is familiar, the longer you look the stranger it all becomes; you cannot exhaust the world.

Then the doubts come in….

Am I unnecessarily limiting what I do by having a narrow subject. In positive times I think the narrow and familiar allows me to be freed from topography, allowing the close observation of the particular to be about painting and other important stuff and not just what something looks like. At other times I question whether limiting the source also limits the outcome, whether the work is tied too much to a specific place and the outcomes are then seen as regional or provincial.

I  try not to talk about the paintings in terms of landscape but as painting - the landscape being the painting.

I do like the tenacity and single-mindedness of Constable…

Walking

Since October I have walking further and looking at new places I haven’t worked from before. It is still the coastal Essex marshes and seawalls, so the same things, but as if seen anew. With the added bonus that the further you walk the fewer people you see. I think I have only met two people since October! 

Now, as I work in the studio, it is about keeping that renewed vision fresh. Freshness of vision is hard won; it is not achieved by constantly changing subject matter. That kind of freshness is only superficial. Rather it is found on the further side of familiarity, even boredom, and is about having seen and observed in depth and THEN seeing it as if for the first time. The way a word said over and over suddenly becomes very strange…

Walking

I have been going for long walks along the seawall. There is a four mile stretch that is almost inaccessible except on foot. Hovering on the near horizon, beyond creeks and salt marsh, is Skipper’s Island, now uninhabited and with a breached seawall, it appears as two low wooded islands. 

As is usual, I have been making small A4 drawings and dissecting these in the studio to see what is available to use in painting. I like the horizontal banding of the saltings and the low hump of the island floating on the horizon. I have started making several paintings on paper. This is a landscape I made watercolours of 20 years ago and it is surprising how some of the things I do now summon up images from that time. But I don’t want to go back, I want to go forward into the uncharted…

Midsummer

I think this painting and I might nearly have finished with each other. It has been a long haul. Above is how it was in mid July. I think things changing and things happening over time have become part of what the painting is but I have also tried to allow the painting to dictate its own direction. The final painting now looks like this. It is titled Midsummer:

I made some watercolours a few weeks ago to try to see what was going on in the painting. These helped simplify and clarify things.

I am now out drawing again seeing what other paths I might take. From these drawings I have been making pieces on paper looking at the buildings on a nearby quay and the boat sheds in a local yard. I have also been back to the saltings redrawing the creeks and sluices filling and emptying with the tides. In the past couple of days I have been drawing the paths and slopes of the concrete sea defences…