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November 26, 2003

manchester art show

I'm at the Manchester Art Show now until Sunday, so no postings for a while, I imagine.

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first marks

The first marks are always hard. The panel is pristine. It’s been primed and stares, blank white – make a mark if you dare, at me. The first marks are either too bold or too hesitant. I have to wait for the painting to gather some momentum, to gain some history. It’s tricky. Will it work? What does it need? What shall I do? Shall I do this – with this; or that – with that?

What ever happens in these early stages often gets covered up later. As the painting progresses this becomes its history. It gradually leaves me and gets a life of its own. Until the final marks are dictated by the painting.

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November 25, 2003

the parapet

Safe painting, in the way I know I can, is keep your head down, cosy, warm, comfortable and hummmm - round the fire with thick socks and a cup of tea - painting.

And nothing happens. I know where I’m going and I get there. No risks, safe. No edge.

The Unstuck Paintings are different – they’re dangerous. I’m sticking my neck out, sticking my head above the parapet, and I’m saying: this is what I think, this is what I feel [this is what I have noticed about the world around me and the people in it].

I don’t know where I’m going. It’s frightening [terrifying]. It’s certainly risky, safe it ain’t. Some might not work. But that’s where the edge is. And that’s where I’m heading.

The readings for today, at one six double oh:
Flux Level: High, still good; becoming moderate, rising again later.

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good drawing, bad drawing

I do a bad drawing, I feel bad, I feel I’ve lost it, sometimes I feel I’ve never had it in the first place. [At this point, fighting the urge to torch the entire studio, I pull open a few drawers and see the good drawings and claw back the confidence.]

So, next time I look harder, I take more care, I measure, I look and I look and I look until I can see; and I do a good drawing. I feel confident, and good. I put it in a drawer.

Next time, feeling confident, I don’t look quite so hard, I don’t see so much, I do a bad drawing, I feel bad, I feel I’ve lost it. [FX: drawer opening]

So, next time I look harder I take more care, I measure, I look and look and look until I can see, and I do a good drawing. I feel confident.

Next time … well, you get the idea. It’s a Gumption Trap, and there are many of them in the creative game.

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November 24, 2003

time was

Time was we didn’t have makeup, we didn’t have clothes; and there wasn’t tarmac, concrete, double glazing or central heating. Time was we walked barefoot on the earth and other things mattered.

Feelings we have forgotten were important. We have lost touch of our touch, we no longer feel the earth under our feet,

between our toes,
on the beach.

the forecast looks okay:
Flux Level: High to moderate; inspiration good, becoming strong, expected later.

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November 23, 2003

the muse

Though there are nine of them in Greek mythology; Clio, Melpomene, Thalia, Calliope, Urania, Euterpe, Terpsichore, Polyhymnia and Erato [daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne for those who are interested in that sort of thing]; covering everything from flutes to epic poetry, there is no-one specifically for painting. Which is sad. But then painting didn’t feature in the arts of Ancient Greece.

A muse is important in that they can inspire the artist. It’s not just a matter of looks, however. It’s about giving freedom to the artist, allowing the artist to be creative, actually being part of the work. A muse has few preconceptions about a work, though may know what the artist is trying to achieve, and can therefore provide encouragement. A muse doesn’t have to feature in the work, though they often do.

Grand Order of Muses:
Mythical muse – an inspiring abstract concept.
Veritable muse – real person capable of inspiring an artist.
Heroic muse – real person, willing to sacrifice comfort for art.
Venerable muse – wholly inspirational person, often found actually living with an artist.
Legendary muse – great people of the past who have inspired creativity.

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November 22, 2003

a little bit unstuck

So, I let go – I let my ideas out, I spoke up, and said what I wanted. I got closer to my feelings. I got closer to the image I have in my mind. [It got messy in the studio, hurrah!]

This was largely due to the encouragement of my friends it has to be said. And the dedication of a very special Unstuck Model, who currently holds one of the highest ranks of Muse: the Heroic Muse.

Though I still don’t know how I’m going to paint.

Flux level: high, becoming good by one two double oh; fair to moderate, more good expected later.

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November 21, 2003

still stuck?

Going in a new direction, trying new things, is difficult. Taking the road less travelled by and all. Not knowing what I’m doing, not knowing quite where I’m going, is hard. Or if I’ve an idea where I want to go, struggling to get there without maps.

[But who said exploring was easy?]

Wanting to be more messy, not so precise, more immediate. Wanting to let go, and by letting go reach the part of me that is feeling and experiencing. Get away from the thinking and analysing; leave that for another day.

I'm trying to find an image on the panel, with the paint, an image I can feel and can see in my mind. I can’t write it – the words are insufficient. And as yet, though it is early days, I can’t express it in paint.

Surely that’s what the struggle is. To attempt something unknown. But the temptation is always to stick with the stuff you know [stuck].

Flux level: falling; poor, remaining low, increasing more slowly.

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November 20, 2003

the passion

The thinking of it is the passion. The joy of the urge to make marks, to capture an image and its associated emotions, to put some moment down for ever, to try and communicate what I feel about what I see.

To be able to do this, to be able to express feelings and communicate them, a new language has to be learnt, a visual language. This in itself takes some time and should, most certainly, be an ongoing process. But the execution of the language can often get in the way of the expression. The intensive nature of some of the skills can serve to deaden the passion.

An artist needs to be sensitive enough to create the initial idea, then practical enough to do it. You need to swap hats regularly between this sensitivity and the practicality, to keep the idea driving through the physical process of making the piece. I find working on more than one picture at once, each being at different stages, can help me maintain the passion.

In the Unstuck project I am attempting to combine the act of making marks with the sensitivity of the creation. Not hiding the marks themselves; the notes I write to myself, the initial reference, the actual brush strokes and the nature of the oil paint. To be seen to be doing it, perhaps. Am I therefore a de-constructivist? Or [heaven forfend] a post-modernist?

Answers, on a postcard please, to… – oh, you can just click below.

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the balance

It’s a fine balance. A balance between the doing of it and the thinking of it. Sometimes it’s a fight to find the balance between what I can do and what I want to do. I believe it is in that struggle where the key to expression is likely to be found.

If you just go on doing the same thing day after day, week after week [mind-numbing boredom aside] it doesn’t go anywhere. It ceases, pretty quickly, to be an expression of feeling and become a production line of the same old tricks. No matter how good the tricks are, they are still just tricks.

To move on you must explore [boldly split infinitives where no infinitives have been split before]. You must allow yourself to fail in order to have a chance at success. The important thing is to be trying.

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November 19, 2003

the flux forecast

today's readings:
the beam: 2.5
the dial: 4
flux level: moderate, becoming fair; fug, clearing expected one six double oh. Rising

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Criticism, n - process of judging merits of artistic work; expression of unfavourable opinion, pointing-out of faults.

But criticism can be helpful, why it has such negative associations I don't know. Positive criticism or constructive criticism is often a vital part of the creative process. As an artist I have learnt to look at my own work critically. It is often a battle to remain positive in the face of such personal output, but it can be done.

There are those who feel external criticism of any kind is useless.

“The works you see are segments of my working life. If you prefer one work over another, it is your privilege, but it does not interest me. The work is a statement of identity, it comes from a stream, it is related to my past works, the three or four works in progress and the work yet to come. I will accept your rejection but I will not consider your criticism any more than I will concerning my life”

David Smith - sculptor

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November 18, 2003

unstuck glue

A difficult substance, unstuck glue. A substance that tries to hold the edges together while letting the middle roam free. It’s not sticky per se; it's potentially sticky. Think not of Pritt Stick, more of the Hot Dark Matter currently holding the Universe together.

Todays readings, by the way:
the beam: 2.8
the dial: 6
flux level: high, becoming good, panic later.

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November 17, 2003

creative flux and fridges

Momentary creativity washes over me as I work. But, like a wave, it is gone again as soon as it has washed over me. I can feel it, for a fleeting second. I can recognise it now, when it happens. I can feel the IT, the Va-Va-Voom [as M.Renault would say]. But I can't catch it - if I chase it, it runs away like my shadow.

And like my shadow it is ill defined, fuzzy, insubstantial, constantly in flux. The more you chase it, the more you try to define it, to hold it, to have it, to keep it, the more you'll never find it. You have to sneak up on it.

You have to try to make things easy for it to appear, get the conditions right, arrange the paper, the pencils, the light, the paint; start work in a casual carefree, listen to the radio talk about your new fridge, sort of way. Then, if the creative flux appears: ignore it, turn your back on it, let it go, appear un-concerned, buy another fridge and talk about it ever more enthusiastically.

With luck the flux will remain and the creative moments will wash up and over you like the slowly incoming sea at, say, Weston-super-Mare.

I think I need to get out more

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November 16, 2003

permission to paint

That’s what I wanted. What do you want? my friend said. I want to paint, I said. Well why don’t you? she said. I find it hard, I said. I find it difficult to spend time painting when I should be working. But you work very hard at your paintings, she said. That’s different I said, the painting is for me.

What about the writing? she said. Well, I said, people pay me to do that. So I have permission to write. So you need permission to paint? she said. Yes, I suppose I do, I said.

So I applied for a grant from the Arts Council, and they’ve now given me permission to paint. Thank you.

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November 14, 2003

like autumn leaves they came

I can spend days up here, by myself, just me and the pygmy pony [sorry Frank] just me and the oil paint, and the charcoal, and the paper, and the big panels, obviously; oh, and the books. And the music of course, and the computer and the big arm chair and - anyway days with no one to talk to.

But not today. Today the second unstuck model came round and we set to work on the unstuck pictures. Then a French photographer, Patrick Fabre, came to take some photographs of me drawing the unstuck model, for a documentary [in black and white] that he's doing on artists; and another photographer, Tim, came to take some pictures of the unstuck model for her portfolio. Dionne, who works here on her own amazing textiles, came in. A girl called round to see if she could model for me; followed by two students from the University who were soaking wet from the rain and needed a nice cup of tea and a sit down, while John Palmer, Artistic Director of Full Body and the Voice, came along with Jean-Francois, Artistic Director of Theatre du Plantin from Belgium, to see some pictures [stuck and unstuck].

The kettle's worn out, but - Hey! I'm international. It's good having a busy studio, keep calling in guys.

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November 12, 2003

liquid light

aha! I've found it. A key to a problem. I thought I'd reached a stuck bit: how to get text onto the panels without hand lettering everything or resorting to elaborate screen printing processes. But in the true spirit of research I have unstuck myself and found: liquid light.

[Well I rang my mate, Adrian, and he told me what it was and where to find it.]

So I can paint a photographic emulsion onto the panel [in the dark I guess] and expose it to light, in my case some text probably, then develop it with a sponge. Hey! No glue, no mess, no fuss, no light, no vember. [sorry, couldn't resist it]

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November 11, 2003

art explained

I want to push the implied space and create a visual dialogue between figurative depiction and non-figurative abstraction, exploring the surface/non-surface dialectic, taking the context as both picture plane and illusion.

Translation: I want to paint messy backgrounds behind things that look like what they are.

I want to explore the nature of reality and fiction within the context of the picture.

Translation: I want to paint things that look like what they are with paint that looks like paint.

I want to expose the reality of the mythic trick.

Translation: I don’t mind the drips.

I want to create a non-specific significance within the context of the picture.

Translation: I’m going to write on the picture.

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November 10, 2003

true blots

There are two kinds of painting. There are many kinds of painting - I’m wrestling with just two of them. You can apply your loaded brush to the panel and carefully paint a blot, to look just like a blot. Or you can splatter paint onto a panel and make a blot, which is a blot.

You can draw drips and then paint them, basically colouring them in, like in the geography lesson - colouring in the maps, all the blue bits are the sea and the brown bits with yellow lines... Or you can create drips by having too much too wet paint on the brush; or, better still, let the possibility of drips occur as part of the painting process and not worry about them.

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the advert again

"John Coombes, good morning"
"Hello, I've just got a text message saying you're looking for life models"

[I should at this stage point out I have placed the advert in the Huddersfield University 'Jobshop' which offers the posts on their website amongst other things - text messaging obviously]

"Oh, that's good"
"could you tell me more about it please"

So I did, and they sounded interested.

"where is your studio?"
"come out of the University and turn right at Sainsbury's"
"Er... I live in Hounslow"

Unstuck goes national!

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November 07, 2003

pistachio nuts and motivation

It’s hard to start. The intent is there, the inspiration even. But there is also fear, heart-stopping fear; fear of the blank space onto which the inspiration is due to pour. American artist Helen Frankenthaler summed it up well:

“I sit around
and sharpen pencils
make phone calls
eat pistachios
take a swim.
I feel I should, must,
will, paint.
It is agony
it’s boredom.
I become impatient
and angry.
Until I make a mark,
just a mark”

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model required

2 girls needed as life models for Arts Council funded project. One day a week, £5.00 / hour
[Huddersfield Daily Examiner 5.11.03]

“This is John Coombes, please leave a message, thank you”
“Hello, my name is – pppffffff!!”
CLICK brrrrrrrrrrrrr

“This is John Coombes, please leave a message, thank you”
CLICK brrrrrrrrrrrrr

“John Coombes, hello”
“It’s about the advert – is it nude?”
“Yes. That’s what life model means”
“Oh, well, you’re alright”
CLICK brrrrrrrrrrrrr

“Hello, you left a meassage on my answerphone about the advert in the paper”
“No I didn’t!”
“Is that Linda Mardy?
“Well you left a message about the life modelling”
“The what?
“I’m looking for a life model”
“The ba -!!”

“John Coombes, hello”
“Your advert in the paper, does it mean taking your clothes off?”
“Oh, huh, [GIGGLING IN BACKGROUND] heeeuh ah!”
CLICK brrrrrrrrrrrrr

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November 06, 2003

primers and plumbers

Well, Rosie's been working hard all afternoon, and a 1220 mm x 1800 mm panel takes 20 minutes to paint with one coat of primer... so 10 panels, five coats each, sanded down between coats, that's about 18 hours priming, on top of the hour it took to put each panel together; and you wonder why a painting costs so much - imagine if I were a plumber!

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November 05, 2003


I’ve finished constructing five of the ten panels which will make up this project. For those who are interested in this sort of thing: they are 1220mm x 1800mm x 06mm beech ply with a pine support glued to the back. They will be primed next, by Rosie, my studio assistant for the project. Rosie will do four coats of a quick dry acrylic primer, sanded between coats. This gives a hard smooth surface. I will do the last coat and not sand it so the brush strokes remain and give an initial texture to the panel.

Meanwhile I am working on the images, exploring the use of text within the picture, and the use of layers to build up a palimpsest [see below].

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As popular pastimes go, reading and writing didn’t feature heavily in the lives of people in the Middle Ages, in fact it was reserved for just a few, and these few lived in seclusion, tucked away in draughty abbeys and dank monasteries on remote islands.

They wrote the gospels mainly, on parchment. The Abbot would decide the text to be written and generally illuminated in the monks' own inimitable way, and before you knew it rooms full of studious and skilful monks set about scratching with the dip pens and ink.

Then the Abbot moved on, and a new Abbot succeeded him, and he would have his own ideas about what text was to be written and illuminated. Parchment was not abundant, they couldn’t just send a monk out to WH Smiths and buy another box of the stuff. They had to spend months stretching, liming and scraping back the skins of goats and sheep to reach a beautiful smooth, strong sheet, often almost transparent. So when your man, the Abbot, changes the text, rather than throw the original away and pop out and catch another sheep, the monks would wash and scrape away the previous text and write the new one on top of the old.

Needless to say it was hard to get rid of all the text without scraping right through the parchment, so there were traces of the old lettering showing through under the new text. After a few new Abbots and many scrapings the resulting image is a palimpsest.

Today palimpsests occur on the hoardings around building sites when six months' worth of music posters decay and drop off in fragments.

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November 04, 2003

quantum disentanglement

By and large by enlarging the canvas [or panel in my case] I can reduce the impact of the brush stroke, thus foiling quantum entanglement at a super-molecular level, while still maintaining it as part of the process. I don’t want to deny the method, the actual action of painting. I want the painting to be seen to be done.This could be called deconstructivist, or even post-modern [if anyone knew what post-modern was].

Just to take the particle physics metaphor to its illogical conclusions: initially the paintings should exist in two states, the painted surface and the implied image. [Heisenberg might have been here before me but I’m uncertain]. Eventually the paintings will exist in three states simultaneously, the painted surface, the implied image and the applied text – so pick the bones out of that Herr Schrodinger.

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look what happened to Ingres

For four hundred years, give or take a lunch break, painters strove for perfection. They wanted to achieve the perfect painting, the perfect portrait, the perfect likeness. They got very good at drawing, they got very good at colouring in. They developed oil painting [Jan van Eyck had a lot to do with that part], they used lenses and mirrors and employed all the tricks of the trade. But for years they were frustrated by the tell tale signs of the brush mark. Perfection was denied them.

Then along comes Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and within twenty years - BINGO! no brush marks. And were the people thrilled? No they weren't. "What is this, Mr. Ingres?" they would say, or: "Qu'est que c'est, M. Ingres?" to be more accurate. "What no brush strokes?" [do your own translation] "but this is not possible, you cannot have painted this - it must be the work of the devil!" So instead of being heralded he was hounded.

If that wasn't bad enough, Fox-Talbot was already hanging about his Abbey with a Box Brownie and the next thing you know you're in Photoshop clicking the 'brush stroke' button. Now where's the sense in that?

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the paint is the thing

It's all about the paint - well not all , obviously. But by painting big [1800mm x 1220mm] the paint itself becomes the trick. Paint smaller pictures and the paint has to pretend to be something else. Quantum entanglement comes into play - the smaller the thing you're dealing with the more effect the tools will have. To find out more about quantum entanglement: knock a panel pin in with a sledge hammer.

So, as with sub-molecular physics, so it is with painting: the size of the brush and the thickness of the paint affect the look of the picture unless you do as Ingres did, and eliminate the brush stroke [and look what happened to Ingres]. But for me I want to put my hand up and say: “I am painting this – with paint, and look: it still works”.

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