This is my text for ‘Borderlines’ published by Studio Publications on the occasion of my solo show at Messum’s, London in September 2011. The fully illustrated publication, with an introduction by Jill Lloyd, is available from www.messums.com
My landscape is centred on a short stretch of the North Essex coast. It is a place that I have grown up with. It is not dramatic or particularly picturesque but a place where agriculture gradually gives way to grazing marsh and golf links, to saltings and mud flats, low scrubby cliffs and then the beach. The coastline is barricaded by seawalls and concrete sea defences; a low and sinking land bounded by a rising sea.
It is the line of the coast that is in most of my work; that moving boundary between things; the land and the sea, known and unknown, the certain and the unfathomable. The coast is a destination, a place where something is reached, a border-crossing. The beach huts and benches along the seafront are strung out along this border, with a view of nothing much at all, the whole world at their backs; another world beyond the horizon or beyond sight.
However it is not these subjects that make the paintings. Subject matter is to some extent irrelevant, or at least a matter of personal choice; painting is in the dialogue between the subject and its means of expression.
This short stretch of coast acts as an archive of source material, an open-air library, something to think with. It is both an extension of the studio and a microcosm of the wider world and it is the familiarity of the material that allows me to move beyond the overt topography, beyond the assumption that what something looks like can be easily known. Repeated observation does not use up the thing observed, rather it is by returning to the same things that their appearance is constantly renewed. It might be like repeating a word over and over until, suddenly, you are aware of what a strange thing that word is and how unfamiliar. It is only in repeatedly drawing the same elements that I find I can move into that space beyond the familiar assumptions made about the world and find in the ordinary the strange and numinous.
My studio is in a yard a few minutes from the beach. I try to be there soon after 8.30 and work until 5. I would like to think that there is no typical day but in the end each day in the studio is made up of the same few elements: I make a cup of tea, I put on radio 4, I spend a long time looking at the previous day’s work, I read or sometimes write, I go out to draw or, at lunchtime, walk to the allotments. There are occasional visitors and I paint.
I am in the studio most days so how I work, and how the paintings look, have a lot to do with preventing things becoming routine and descending into boredom. There is a determination to see the familiar as if new and a determination not to repeat myself. I do not want the forward momentum of the painting process to coalesce into something that I understand. I try to search for what I do not know rather than repeat what I do know.
It all seems to make sense until I try to explain what it is I actually do.
I draw outside most days, sometimes for an hour or more but usually less. I take an A4 pad and a small box of pencils, oil pastels and a few crayons and I go again and again to the same few places.
I am trying to make drawings without thinking, to have little self-consciousness about what it is I am doing, so any rational explanation of it is difficult and probably misses the point of making a drawing at all. I think I am trying to see things whole and not to let them fall apart under scrutiny, to find a set of marks that say the landscape and that say it simply without loss of meaning. I’m hoping to find the things necessary to the paintings; those things that will not be in the way of the paintings being made. I search for some kind of clarity and directness, and for ways of coding that mass of information out in the world into a form that is coherent, meaningful and unexpected.
I do not start a painting with any sense of what it will look like or of how I might bring it to completion. The paintings always begin with something seen. All the marks in any painting come, through the drawings, from very specific things observed and recorded in the landscape. A sprinkling of dashes might be a breeze moving over grass, a line threaded through dashes and ticks might be the boundary of light splintered on the sea, a knot of scribbled loops might be blackthorns. When the means are reduced to the black and white of drawing there has to be invention to provide the vocabulary to express what is seen. Things seen in the landscape are what the paintings are hung on but are not necessarily what they are about, painting is always as much to do with the means of expression as with what is expressed; but I am hoping for an unexpected conjunction of the two.
The painting usually begins with one colour painted across the whole canvas or with a few big marks, something on the canvas to think about. Other marks follow, or changes in colour, something to react against. Initially it is slow and fumbling with the canvas being repainted with a single colour many times but ideas will begin to form about the size of the surface or the disposition of elements within it or the scale of the marks. New drawings are made, a stream of alternatives are considered, big changes in subject are as likely as big changes in colour. It is like trying to light a damp fire; there are many attempts but eventually it begins to smoulder and burn. This begins a long process of putting in, painting over or scraping off and of putting back; of rehearsing the subject over and over, of being caught up in the making and of stepping back to wonder what it is that is happening.
The painting is found in the process of its making and invariably is not what I would have preconceived the painting to be. The finished piece appears not at the seeming end of this process but during it, through surprised glimpses, wrong turns or small revelations, through other ways of seeing the same things or of reconstructing the same image from the flow of drawings.
Currently I like the idea of reducing the means in a painting and to bring it close to drawing. To allow in awkwardness, abrasiveness and difficulties whilst trying to get at something that is true; the painting being the battered remains of observation and searching. Each drawing records 10 minutes or more of looking, each painting uses up 40 or 50 drawings, maybe more. I have been drawing from one current location for 14 months, another for 5 years. Long stretches of time are an important element in the making of a painting and it seems that everything that happens during that time will somehow affect it. Embedded in the painted surface, as well as all those drawn moments, are moments of lucidity and assurance and weeks of perplexity and doubt. There is thought and faith and the mundane ordinary things of each week. It might be this that turns the act of painting into something with meaning.
Being too sure of things easily becomes inflexible dogma; to have faith one has to allow the possibility of doubt and, in working, one has to entertain the real possibility of failure; to make a painting in such a way that failure is a real possibility but might, by an act of will (or faith) be overcome.
There is the temptation to continually seek out the new; to think that fresh subject matter re-news the painting process, to be like Turner on the Grand Tour. And, when away from the studio, I do carry with me a small notebook and have made drawings and watercolours in Wales and Scotland, France and California. But I am more drawn to Constable’s idea of painting as doggedly driving a nail…The persistent return to the familiar, and realizing that beyond the surface and the apparent, nothing is very familiar; that there is in there, in the ordinary, the ineffable and transcendent.
I was walking through the Clore Galleries at Tate Britain this Spring, bearing up under the cataclysm of Turner’s painting when, at the end of the main corridor and unexpected, was the still small voice of Constable, the nail driven; there was the full-size sketch for Hadleigh Castle; a molten slab of paint barely coalescing into description, full of air and weather. He has taken the ordinary and unremarkable moment and made it, through an act of will, emotion and wild technique into something tearful, angry, desperate and wonderful.
I take this painting in my head back to the studio where I have a reproduction of it; but it is only a reproduction, a diagram. The actual breathing thing was in Tate Britain and now in my head.
In the studio there is an on-going conversation with other artists, past and present, with the world outside, and between myself and the painting. To finish a painting might be to arrive at a point where there is nothing left to say. But it is no good being satisfied with what has been done. That leads nowhere. You need to be baffled by and frustrated with the work and to over-reach yourself a little each time.