Every person comes to their unique process in their own way. You can teach technique, but not process. But if this were to be a manual for how to paint like I do (though I can’t imagine why anyone would want to), there are a few nuts and bolts I can describe.
First has to be the arrival of an idea, a sort of notion made up of both an emotional state and an image, which could contain specific things, or could be nothing more than a feeling of light and space. It may come into your mind while on a walk, or after a strong cup of coffee, or when you see something interesting to you. An idea which is rare and precious, and which when it enters your mind must be harvested, mulled over, and not mentioned to anyone at all until safely on its way on canvas, in case other people’s ideas of what is right and good might affect it. You can’t think of this idea on purpose, it simply appears in your brain. I don’t have ideas very often, and they are sickly creatures, easily overcome by anxiety.
Second, gathering the – I want to say evidence – but I mean reference. That means you take detailed photos of things that occur to you, things that might work with the idea, or you go back through old photos looking for a ditch you photographed on a weekend away, or a flight of garden steps from a relative’s house. If there is to be a figure, you photograph the person, placing them carefully in a position that accords with the idea, full figure and a lot of details, head to toe. The references are nothing on their own – a rock, a tuft of grass, an evening sky, a lamp – anything that might come into play when constructing on canvas that place you are searching for, the confection that can’t and should not be real, but has enough familiarity to draw you in and hold you.
Next the final decision on size, ordering the stretchers, and stretching the canvas, taking the time to make sure it is square and even. You might think of doing a small HB pencil sketch if you aren’t sure of the proportions writ large, or if figures are involved. If there is a sketch, it’s a very rough thing, unintelligible but with indications of where main elements could go. When it’s feeling right, you grid it, then mark out the canvas with a dot every 50cm. Then you start with a gestural line, feeling out the space, preferably without a nervous interval of doubt. Because after all, and this is such a comfort, and a lesson usually learned late, it doesn’t matter if you fail. Except for the canvas cost, and cost to your pride.
The white canvas is an infinite space. The moment you put one line down, groping blindly as you go, you are defining space, which means it is no longer infinite. That is the need beneath all the other needs – to reduce infinity and make it manageable. And once you’ve started you just carry on. One thing leads to another. It’s like a mathematical puzzle, or even better, like a maze, and an odd mix of caution and courage is required at every turn. Caution, not to make some major mistake of perspective that will interfere with the illusion. Courage, to make some bold, loose marks to indicate the beginnings of place and thing. Caution, to allow undercoats of colours that might look bad for now but will inform later layers, and not to try to achieve too much detail too soon. Courage, to trust that you’ll do what’s necessary when the time comes. Caution, when you’re not quite sure what to do, not to do anything. Courage, to admit when you’ve trampled an area and a major change is needed. The courage to throw it away, because one too many mistakes have been made, or because the initial idea was a bad one, a rotten apple, a nasty trick you’ve played on yourself. And lastly the courage, if you get through the maze, to bask for a moment in the sunshine at the centre. It’s all there is.
In the work I am doing now, sometimes I leave a mark or areas of marks visible, as opposed to buried in the illusion, to create tension between “finished” and “unfinished”, to create lightness as a counterpoint to density, to undercut conviction with its opposite. Not because I think a particular kind of mark looks special. The looser areas of the painting are really just underpainting left exposed, and the more detailed, realist areas are the image clothed. But you could also say that the the looser areas are an expression of energy and human hope, of wistful longing, and the finished, realist areas are a kind of cover-up, because all uncertainty seems to have been removed. Surely hope can’t exist without uncertainty. The finished painting is like a husk, a memorial to process.
Picture the canvas like a head of hair. You can push and pull, tease sections up and plait them into detail, leave other parts wild and tangled. You can add and take away decorations, enliven it with little stuffed birds, diamond pins, spots of light, a branch here or patch of blue sky there.
Picture it like an orchestra, and you are the conductor, an intoxicating feeling, coaxing more sound, more delicacy and fine notes, while always thinking of the whole piece, the beginning and the end. The miracle of painting is that although the process of it is grindingly attached to time, the finished thing is not time dependent. The beginning, middle and end are all there at once like a crash of sound.
Picture it like a garden, where some parts are old-fashioned topiary, where the poor plants have been tortured into resembling the inhabitants of your imagination, and in other parts weeds persist, life persists, an animal life beyond your control. The process of care-taking, of husbandry, is self-limiting – you simply stop when enough has been done, when the thing to be communicated is present and correct, or when you feel like you’ve told the story one too many times. To farm a painting is to allow it its seasons, to respond to it as it grows, to listen to its needs. You have a relationship with the painting, and if you try to control that relationship too much you will find yourself isolated and anxious, with an overwatered garden full of wilting leaves and overblown sentiment.
Even when you are convinced that to be an artist is to be a fool, aping life but not living it, there is always the painting in your studio, needing to be fed and walked, clothed, attended to. You can go and listen to its gripes, its desires, and try to serve it to your best ability, expecting little thanks at the end. You do your duty by it, and that gets you through the moments of cynicism. Painting and being a parent go together pretty well. They can both be very boring. You sit in the playground, hour after hour, watching your children play or gazing into the middle distance. You paint, hour after hour, up against an unyielding surface. But tedium doesn’t matter, because both painting and being a parent are an opportunity to serve something outside of the self. This is a gift, it’s one of the best things life can offer. It relieves you, at least for part of the time, from the uneasiness of self-importance. And both paintings and children do grow up and take on their own lives, which is rewarding and beautiful to see.