Project 5, considering painting, ex 1.4 contextual focus

Landscape made in Rebelle4 software.

Two questions asked of me recently, both by tutors, make this a very pertinent discussion. Before starting this module, my previous tutor wondered aloud why I wasn’t on the Fine Art (FA) pathway as my body of work seemed more of a fit for that; and currently, during our wide ranging introductory video meeting, the question, did I see myself as a painter, came up. An inquiry, not a confrontation; the careful beginning of an exploration of my expectations of this module and how I might manage it/them.

The first was easy. I’d bailed out of core FA module Understanding Visual Culture (UVC) after the first assignment. I wasn’t here to make history of art or the philosophies that go with it my primary focus; I was here to be a better artist and to have an academic framework within which to contextualise it. The focus of the final year (three years) seemed incompatible with what I intended to do with experiences drawn from the degree.

But did I see myself as a painter? I wasn’t quite sure what the question was asking – what was the sub text, what was I missing? Anything? I thought back to how I’d progressed through the modules so far and I’d clearly moved from tight pencil details on tiny sketchbook pages – all of them clean and tidy – through similarly tidy paintings at a larger scale, to a point where I was sticking almost anything onto anything else at A1 size and letting pigment leak where it would.

Was that a painter? Well, although I like a bit of canvas I’m not wedded to it and I never use oils. I’m mixed media, if it gets within reach it’s likely to end up in the painting – net curtains, OHP film, builders’ sand, packing paper, bits of grass and mud, and latterly hedgehog poo. What doesn’t make it into the work is foodstuffs and anything toxic. Other than that, I put a piece of something on an easel, I apply pigment with a brush, a pen, a palette knife, my fingers, and I move it around in accordance with some goal that depends on the task I’ve been set. Maybe that’s being a painter but in the contemporary rather than the classical sense.

This exercise has some interesting questions that probe the whole notion of what it is to paint.

  1. What do I feel painting is and what do I feel it isn’t? Tricky, but my first instinct is to suggest that it involves the manipulation of unspecified pigment on an unspecified surface towards an outcome that may or may not be known from the outset, and the finished nature of which may not be self evident. To say what I don’t think it is feels like a trap, a peat bog that sucks down any comment in which the traditional notion of what painting is defines the obverse and leaves you with no argument. I think if it doesn’t involve mark making with some kind of implement and some form of pigment then it may be something else. But I’ll also allow digital art, art using light, and art made in augmented or virtual reality. The purist in me wants to rule out the temporary, the constructed three dimensional shapes that aren’t pots by the likes of Grayson Perry, performances, and piles of things I can’t get my head round. But let’s see.
  2. The purpose of art: what is painting for? Very topical, this one, as our current government is setting about cutting funding for arts courses by 50%. I would ask them, on a much broader scale, where they think their TV dramas, films, books, plays, theatrical productions, set designers, illustrators of their kids books, games designers, film score writers, and the people who turn those into the music that gets their [cold dead] hearts going when the bad guy is creeping up on the good guy, the gallerists who collect and curate the art they like to claim they’ve seen and the artists who make that, the people who design their phones, their watches, their laptops and computers, their wallpaper, furniture, crockery, clothes, everything aesthetic or challenging or interesting or stimulating or comfortable to sit in or wear or use – where do they think these people come from? An artist’s eye underpins everything from the functional to the esoteric. Artists make the simulations for space exploration, Brian Cox would be using a flip chart to describe the speed of light and where the rest of the universe sits in relation to us without artists building the animations that look so real people keen to call ISS videos fake call simulations fake with no appreciation of the irony at all. On the other hand, there’s Brian Eno (2012 and 2015) describing art as ‘everything you don’t have to do’. I used to think he was right but I may have just argued myself out of that view. Painting – making pigmented marks on a surface of some sort – seems to me to underpin so much of the endeavour I’ve listed above. But as a standalone activity? I think in the past, pre-cameras, it served to document people’s lives. Rich people commissioned artists to ‘take the family photo’ and to be sure to include as many indicators of wealth and status as possible. They also commissioned porn – paintings of nude women that they kept behind curtains in a locked room for themselves and their mates to ogle at*. But with cameras came liberation from that straightjacket, freedom to follow a more impressionistic then abstract route**. I think this is where the intent of the artist, the idea of the communication of an idea may have had the chance to flourish – ‘This is how I see the sea – big and over my head and crashing down’ (I’m thinking of one of Maggi Hambling’s pieces that I tried to copy a while ago); this is what pain looks like; here’s isolation; here’s friendship; these are my cats. I’d say painting now is about creating impact, making us look at it and try to understand what it’s saying, leaving an image and ideas in our heads in the way Pinker might describe as a transfer of mentalese from the artist to the viewer via the piece of work.
  3. Starting and finishing a work: where does an artwork begin and end? This isn’t unique to painting; novelists, short story writers (even flash), and poets are in the same creative boat and so I can probably draw some parallels. In my experience, especially since I learned that a first draft of anything is just that and that the advice ‘don’t get it right, get it written’ basically means use that blank space to make something, anything, then edit it into shape. I’ve found for both there’s a lot of prowling around ideas, loose thinking, activities that let my unconscious surface and make the rest of my mind shut up for a while. Then there’s the more active work, often an existing body of practice and familiarity in terms of putting ideas together, a confidence that this word or that mark will serve its purpose, even if that purpose is just to hold the space for a moment. I’m learning this with painting. I’m better at ‘editing’ and also at obliterating and starting again; and I’m beginning to judge better what’s working and what isn’t. So the painting starts where writing starts; somewhere in a moment of thought or an image, an idea, something someone says, a story, a poem, music; and grows by shaping itself through whatever materials I have or can obtain and my capabilities in using them. Where does it end? I don’t think it does but there’s a point you decide to let it go; into the portfolio never to be seen again, to a publisher, to a shop/gallery – or a gallery/shop if you’re lucky, to a buyer. That letting go point feels to me to be the point at which I know I’ll make it worse rather than better so it’s either scrapped or it’s out on its own.
  4. Knowing what you’re doing: is it unhelpful to know what you’re doing and is it possible to know what you’ve done? I’ve talked about this elsewhere, the notion of writers being with Plotters or Pantzers, the former having every twist and turn of a plot set out on spreadsheets or post-it notes before they write a word, and the latter starting with a broad idea then essentially following their characters. I’m a Pantzer when I’m writing so it’s no real surprise that this is my preferred modus operandi here too. I’m guessing this is why I’ll never do an owner-friendly pet portrait. I like the idea of watching what happens when I apply a pigment of some sort as an early indicator of where I think I’m going with an idea, then finding myself being led in a different direction by what that does on whatever surface I’ve used. This feels more like a creative enterprise than painting toes for the Master Artist for ten years before being allowed to paint a whole foot*. I prefer the big picture to the detail, the view from the back rather than the close up. But I only want to know what I’m doing in terms of use of materials so that I can deploy them to best effect in an emerging image. Do I know what I’ve done? I doubt it because some of that will come from the impact on the viewer. But I’m better at knowing when to stop, and I’m often satisfied by what’s resulted from the work. At least temporarily – these days a switch to another module and, well, the last body of work is suddenly yesterday’s chip paper!

Lee Ufan. I discussed his ideas and thoughts in some detail in an earlier post.

Eno, B. 2012. Art is everything you don’t have to do. Lecture given at the AA School of Architecture. “Art is everything you don’t have to do” – Brian Eno – Strayfish Arts and 2015 Brian Eno on Why Do We Make Art & What’s It Good For?: Download His 2015 John Peel Lecture | Open Culture [from my personal blog]

*Much of this comes from Tim Marlow’s Great Artists series, now on YouTube.

**David Hockney’s 2006 Secret Knowledge (book and documentary).

Hambling, M. 2012. Bold Breaking Waves. [online] My Modern Met. Accessed 8 May 2021. Bold Breaking Waves by Maggi Hambling (

Pinker, S. Discussed in a previous post Part 1, Project 3, exercise 1:2 – Mental mapping – ConboyHill Studio Practice (

***Tim Marlow again.

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