This is a piece I wrote for the catalogue of my show at Messum’s 6th February to 2nd March. The fully illustrated catalogues are available from Messum’s and also include an essay by critic and author Andrew Lambirth.
Today is the 22nd November. It is Thursday and, like most days, I have been down to the beach to make drawings. The sun was beginning to dissolve amongst a vast Turneresque glow. The wind was blowing pale rivers of sand across the beach and corrugating the sea, waves coming in small and packed together. There were a few gulls and a few sanderling at the water’s edge. On the horizon freight ships were lining up to enter Felixstowe and wind farms flickered in distant sunlight. There was a single yacht passing.
I made 7 drawings quickly and without much attempt at revision or second thought. I was at the beach less than an hour before returning to the studio a few roads back from the seafront. It is only back in the studio that I can see whether there is anything of interest or use in the day’s drawings. I make a pot of tea and go through the work.
I find the act of drawing in the landscape not only provides a record of information but also opens a gap between what is seen and what is painted, allowing both to have their proper space. It also adds to the lexicon of possible marks that might allow painting to address those things seen.
The first 3 drawings were made with a hard graphite stick, scratching in clouds above lines of waves, but they now seem too tentative. The remaining 4 drawings were made using a mix of soft and hard graphite. Layers of cloud are traced in an oily black line passing above a thick dark sea lined with more waves. These seem to have in them a fragment of the afternoon but at an interesting tangent to it. One of these drawings looks particularly complete and provides a way of making sense of, and using, the others. I cut a mount from scrap paper in order to isolate the central part of this drawing and use it to make another start on the small canvas hanging on the painting wall. Blocking in a pale turquoise that might stand for the wind-scoured cold afternoon light, I then make a few big lines in a dark rusty grey guided by the new drawing.
I trace over some of the drawings on the light box, taking a degree of expression out of the lines to see how they work as design. With some paintings I repeatedly copy drawings on the light box; I like the way that unexpected outcomes sometimes arise from the imperfections of this process. I might square up one of these copies and use it to rework the canvas. This as a way of forcing change onto the painting and of not allowing a sense of satisfaction with it. As the painting develops over the next few weeks and months, I will return to the beach many times. I will also make drawings from the painting and from the location drawings; edging forward looking for something to happen.
Although the painting might end up as only a few marks, the process of making the painting is a prolonged and improvised discovery of those marks; marks that seem true and that return the painting to some relation with things seen. I seem to need those things observed out in the world, things that I have found engaging and compelling and around which a painting might start to coalesce.
I scrape out all the paint, remix the pale turquoise and put up a new set of marks. I block in a pale shape in the upper half of the canvas but lose the sense of air in the surface, I try darkening the turquoise, scrape out the horizon, alter the ratio of red to blue in the grey I’m mixing, scrape out and reapply a pale colour that has muddied, sit for a while to see where it is all going and then try again. A few marks of paint can contain everything or nothing.
It is the end of the afternoon before things start to have any truth to them. The light is gone but I have the beginnings of something to come back to tomorrow, an early conjecture that requires work.
This is how days pass in the studio.