2015 Scenes of a Romantic Nature talk

As I introduce my work to you today, I would like to focus on three main aspects.

I will start by talking about the ideas underlying these paintings, which have to do with how we perceive, and what an image actually is.

Secondly I will talk about questions of style and form, and the language of historical painting.

Lastly I will describe the physical process of painting these images, how they actually come about.

So, first the nature of perception, which of course, is something humans have been tring to define for a long time. I am always fascinated that when we look at an image, we take it as fact, as an actual thing. Fact not only that it depicts something “real” but fact that our interpretation of its meaning must be true too. For me, an image is just a dance, a play of light and colour and shape – it is entirely ephemeral. That is its magic, that is its relief. It is NOT real, NOT something that needs to be processed through the usual channels, assessed, categorised. It can be allowed to exist almost like a natural visual phenomena, like a mirage or the northern lights. An image for me is a spectacle, an entertainment, a holding place in time, a mystery.

This mystery is what interests me.  I think of these paintings as screens, soft veils held up against the gallery wall, offering the illusion of something real. I have called them scenes, a wonderful word from the latin and greek “scena”, a stage or background for a dramatic performance. But a scene also means an act of a play, presenting continuous action in one place. I like thinking of scene in relation to paintings, because they are artificial constructs just like stages, and also because they, and all images, are frozen in time. The action within them is eternally fixed, continuous, a suspended moment.

I would like to quote a writer I very much admire, John Banville. He is describing an imaginary painting and he captures this feeling of infinite, stilled action:

“What happens does not matter; the moment is all. This is the golden world. The painter has gathered his little group and set them down in this wind-tossed glade, in this delicate, artificial light..(..)It is a world where nothing is lost, where all is accounted for while yet the mystery of things is preserved

As I think about the relationship between perception and imagery, there are two words which are important to me: immersion and invention.

These paintings seem to offer a return to an immersive state, where the logical mind can finally be stilled. They hold up a promise of  an entry into Eden, but of course that’s not really possible for us humans. We have lost that immersive ability. We are no longer complete, we are not whole and one with the world, as an infant or an animal can be. With these images I want to tug on the strings of longing, the remaining strings of connection to that lost place.

If the paintings were to mean something intentional and particular, symbolic or metaphorical, this promise of immersion, of engulfment would be lost, the mind would become busy again, and the feeling state would vanish. And so in a way my main challenge is not one of technique but one of subject. I am faced with a paradox: how to paint something that means nothing, that allows the space for feeling. Of course it is simply not possible, we make meaning out of everything. And it is especially impossible when things look real. Looking at a minimalist work, the mind can be stilled. How much more impossible when there is an illusion of something there. But I love to work inside that paradox.

One way to relieve the images of meaning is to use old themes, well-worn subjects, sunsets, classically posed figures, dramatic skies, the language of classical paimting. All of these subjects are in a way red herrings, they are simply stuff, matter. In fact, I called one of my shows “Everything Matters” because all subjects are ultimately one thing – they are an elusive other. We perceive all subjects as being “out there”, “not us”. We can’t help seeing that way. And as John Banville says “What happens does not matter; the moment is all.”

The second word I have mentioned in relation to pereception is invention. For me painting is a kind of invention. It’s just the making of marks on a white canvas to create an illusion. The scale of invention stretches from the overall concept to the tiniest mark which contributes to the edge of a leaf or an eyelash. I prefer to invent  because it almost feels more true to me than trying to show something as truth. It feels more reflective of a truth, because I think that all perception is a kind of invention, filtered through logic, given layers of meaning that are entirely subjective. As we look at the world, as I look at you and you look at me, we are inventing, making meaning.

In these highly worked paintings, which I have called Scenes, I have pursued the invention to a point  tightly bound to what it is depicting, and entirely self-referential. In these other, less worked paintings, which I have called Propositions, the invention is only lightly tethered to the image, it feels to me as if it is straining to be free.


It seems like a good point now to talk now about my second topic – the conventions I draw from historical painting. Invention was important, for example, for the European Baroque painters of the 17th century, like Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain. This was the time when landscape emerged to become a subject in itself, as opposed to just a backdrop to the religious paintings of the early Renaissance. But their idea of landscape was as an invented place, an idealised world, where humans were at one with nature. The people are small in relation to the grand landscapes, often playing music or tending animals in the soft golden light infusing the scenes, which represented the light of reason.

Painting out in the open air only came into fashion in the late 19th century. 17th century landscapes were not at all about documenting particular places, but rather about depicting how the world should look. Artists would perhaps sketch on site, but drawing from many different references, they constructed these landscapes in their studios, often just from hearsay or following on from others’ traditions. I think about these visionary landscapes when I look at this show, where the children, small in relation to the grand scenes, seem to embody an ideal state.

The word invention could also be applied to the Ukiyo-e, translated as the Floating World, of Japanese woodblock prints. I look at these often, the works of artists such as Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi and Hokusai. Also working within strict traditions, these artists had a fuid beauty of composition, line, colour and shape, in perfect balance, where each image seems to be a world in itself, a perfect language. Each image seems to offer simply…enough. To me that is something to aspire to, to create an image that is enough.

I love the use of perspective in these prints, where the mathematical rules are not followed with rigidity, but rather bent to adjust to the needs of the image. In the western tradition, when perspective was invented in the Renaissance it was embraced as an ultimate truth, an inescapable law, allied to the idea of progress, newness, improvement. This Japanese approach feels more accepting of the idea that there are many perspectives, depending on what is depicted, on who is looking. I don’t sense an idea of progress in them, but rather a circularity. In these paintings I have played with perspective, stringing things together, pushing planes close or pulling them apart, but always under the overarching coherence of colour and light, so that you hardly notice. I also love the Japanese use of beauty, which was not just a goal in itself, not just prettiness, but something more profound, contributing towards this sense of a perfect, floating world.

Lastly in this section I’d like to mention the Romantic paintings of the German artist Caspar David Friedrich, who lived between the 18th and early 19th centuries. These grand, Romantic landscapes are striving towards a sublime moment of internal recognition. They are not painting an objective ideal, like the Baroque paintings I have talked about. They rather show a subjectivity, an intense, emotive response. The figures in them are dwarfed by the majesty around them. The paintings are often dark and bleak, or lit by a dramatic setting sun. Friedrich seems to have been painting an inner reality, using the language of the natural world.

All of these historical references are evocations, but of course I don’t share the underlying beliefs that motivated them at the time. We live in a  post-modern age. The bubble has burst, the holy grail of belief has gone, and I don’t think there is anything new. What are we left with? I like to play with the iconography of those paintings, the sunsets, the grandeur, the minutiae. I believe and I don’t believe. We have to live with such paradoxes now, and I think that is strangely freeing.

Beauty is an incredibly powerful tool, and a contentious idea – we all know how utterly subjective it is, and it’s hard to take it seriously in a relativistic world. I like to use beauty, or at least, use the traditional idea of beauty. It feels like a prize, or rather a compensation, as if I am giving with one hand and taking away with the other. The beauty seems so full of promise, but there is nothing beyond it. I like to reflect this in my work, because I experience the world around me this way. There is an aching yearning for something to grasp. The world is so beautiful, and so unreachable, and I am so bound up in my thoughts, my inability to be in the present. Another quote from John Banville expresses this feeling:

Sometimes the beauty of things, ordinary things – those unseen flowers, this burnished foliage, the honeyed sunlight on the pavement at her feet – pressed in upon her urgently while at the same time the things themselves seemed to hold back, at one remove, as if there was an invisible barrier between her and the world.


I will talk about the last topic now – how I go about actually painting these.  I feel free as I start – that means delving into the white expanse of the canvas and allowing space to begin to emerge. Then, with a large brush I make big, loose marks, slowly defining the space. With the more worked paintings, I then layer upon layer, with smaller and smaller brushes, until a skin is formed. I use photographic references, taking a leaf from one place, looking at a path but then adapting it to the needs of the image, using light and colour to bind it all together into the illusion of a whole. Sometimes I go out hunting for the right plant, or sky or edge of mountain, or I get my sons or partner to model for me, until I have found the thing that will make the painting work. I don’t project or use photoshop, it would be too prescriptive –  I like to start in a gestural, uncertain way. I don’t want to know how it will look at the end, or what will be in it. I like to keep some areas open ended as I go along, even though when they are finished, they are so closed, and look as if they have been planned from the beginnning.

Sometimes I paint things out, that seem to be pushing the painting towards a particular intention or meaning. I agonise a lot about what does or does not go into these images. I also seem to have a need to sit for hours working every day as if it is not just the final image that calms my anxiety, but also the act of making it.

The Proposition paintings are just another expression of this delving, this creation of the illusion of space. I wanted to find that point  of departure into another world, and then stop, without filling it with detail. It has been an amazing, emotional experience letting go of labour, and with these works I feel I come up against my limitations and smallness in a whole new way. Each mark has so much power in relation to the whole, and I ruined a lot of canvas producing these five works. Sometimes I would come into my studio in the morning and just add one more mark here, or stripe there, or dot of colour, until there is enough, but not too much, until they seem to have an inner vibration. I like to see them hanging in amongst the other paintings, I think they inform each other in ways that would not happen if it was just one or the other. They disrupt assumptions and expectations.

In conclusion, the paradox of pereception.

In order to define ourselves, to form identities, we seem to need to create oppositions. Free will versus determinism. Meaning versus relativism. Morality versus relativism. But these questions must be impossible to resolve. It is not one thing or the other, it is both, or neither. An image can contain contradictions, it can be serious and foolish, trite and sublime, meaningful and meaningless, all at the same time. Sometimes this seems to provoke a kind of outrage, and the word paradoxical is used as an insult. We find it hard to tolerate. And that is understandable – as I said, we need to take a stand on everything in order to define who we are as separate entities. But I like taking an unclear stand, I like to sit on the fence and look both ways.

I am interested in how we perceive, and in our disconnection and desire for connection. I like to use the historical language of painting to create these images. These paintings are vignettes, worlds in themselves, outside of which there is nothing, and I find a kind of wordless relief in that. Both the loose, empty canvases and the highly detailed worlds come from the same place, they are both just propositions, expressions of invention, of illusion, of an unreal reality. They are holding places for a sense of longing.