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December 31, 2003

finishing tools

"Behind every painter...there should be a colleague standing with a mallet, ready to hit him over the head when he has gone far enough"
John le Carre - The Honourable Schoolboy

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December 22, 2003

maintain the difference

Push the edge. Take the everyday and make it extraordinary. It is not enough for an artist to be merely a mirror, you must be a lens.

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December 19, 2003

shoulds & shouldn'ts

Here’s what you should do in the studio: kick off your shoes, take off your socks, and feel the wood of the world beneath your bare feet.

Here’s what you shouldn’t do in the studio: forget where the leg of the radial easel is.

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December 18, 2003

right and wrong

No mark I make is wrong. Art is not about right and wrong. It just works or it doesn’t work. And if it doesn’t work, it only doesn’t work yet – it can be made to work.

I still have to make all the decisions though. Not always easy. I work on the principle that if I can put a series of marks down that don’t look like something, that, in itself, is quite clever.

For a viewer to realise that a painting doesn’t look like a figure, the same cognitive skills must be used as when the viewer thinks it does look like a figure. The marks, in a painting that doesn’t look like a figure, are only fractionally out of sequence – otherwise the viewer might be confused into thinking it doesn’t look like a tree, or it doesn’t look like a Yorkshire Terrier [wrestling with the arresting thought of what it’s doing in a painting of mine in the first place.]

So if I can make marks that don’t work, it is only a matter of time and history [and, okay, a bit of learnt skill and inherent emotion] before they do work. This is very important to bear in mind while painting a portrait.

[answer for the Yorkshire Terrier: you aren’t in my painting, don’t worry]

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Alice & The King

“I haven’t sent the two Messengers, either,” said the King. “They’re both gone to the town. Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see either of them.”
“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.
“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too!”

from ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ by Lewis Carroll.

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December 17, 2003

possibilities and responsibilities

Tricky things, possibilities and responsibilities. Potentially a picture I paint could last 400 years, alternatively it might struggle to get past next Thursday, in its present state.

It doesn’t do a painter any good to contemplate these things. But, equally, they can’t be ignored. It’s no good painting a portrait with cheap paint that will fade to a pale blue-brown stain in six months.

Up until the point that a painting leaves the studio its worth is mutable. It’s interesting to note that an artist may hurl paint and tin cans at a painting, kick it, throw it to the floor and generally manhandle it roughly about the studio; but in an art gallery, the same picture is handled with ultimate care by men in brown coats and white gloves.

The key to a painting’s worth is its leaving the studio. It only begins to realise its potential when it has left the artist. The act of creation is not of immediate value. [It’s trying to address this dilemma that has created much of today’s contentious art.]

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just looking

You do some drawing [well quite a lot it has to be said], then you make some marks on a big panel, then it’s looking. Sitting looking, standing looking, walking around looking. And thinking. Looking thinking, thinking looking, looking feeling, feeling thinking.

A hard one to justify, in the light of the widely accepted understanding of the concept of ‘work’.

“So – what did you do at work today?”
“Oh, I looked at a painting.”
“and – ?”
“and nothing, that’s what I did.”
“You looked at a painting all day?”
“What – just… looked at it?”
“didn’t you do anything?”
“er … well, I looked – oh, and thought a lot.”

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December 16, 2003

bit by bit

All right,
let’s go.

All right,
we’re on the way.

[thanks to Deaf School]

Bit by bit.

Make some strong black coffee. Move the panels about, creep around the edges, look askance, [make some more coffee]. Then it’s scraping back, scratching and creating some texture. Then leap in feet first with the Dark and Dangerous Prussian Blue, [it can be suppressed later – leaving only a hint, as and when required]. Low risk stuff, everything still flexible at this stage.

The oils are open and the brushes are out.

Flux level: good, remaining steady.

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December 15, 2003

struggling with stuck

It’s in here,
it’s the only place it can be,
and it’s struggling to get out.

Out there is the blank paper,
the empty panel,
the unexposed negative.
The great nothing.
Which, left alone,
will continue to be,
for all eternity.

In here, it’s gushing.
[like a 19th Century Texas farmer complaining of a sticky lawn]
what do I do with it?
How do I get it down?

I make marks
and hope to recognise
some signs of mine,
to guide me in.
Like leading lights
on a dark night.

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December 10, 2003

black dog

When the Black Dog bites, deep dark doubt drips into the mind, colouring thoughts and influencing feelings. Forward progress is difficult as would be squeezing through thick felt and black treacle. Reason has turned traitor and presents this dark reality as the only truth. The fragile infrastructure of creativity is undermined and scatters like a house of cards in a hurricane.

Confidence is on trial and the Black Dog sits in judgement with the black silk square on its head. The defence is weak, the evidence seems stacked against me. But the witnesses for the prosecution don’t show. The Black Dog sums up with all its nullity and the jury, after three days of deliberation, indecision and doubt, finally brings in a verdict of: not guilty!

There just remains all the cards to pick up.

Flux level: low, rising slowly, continued difficult; expected fair by one eight double oh tomorrow.

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still stuck

sorry for the break in communication, I'm working on the problem.

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December 08, 2003

stuck at four in the morning

All the horrors seem worse at four in the morning. Or maybe the early hour opens a dark window on the truth. Which ever it is, it's hard to get back to sleep and lay to rest the tumult in the head, the doubt and distress of the day.

The blind silence concentrates the mind and, in the absence of other stimuli, it focuses in upon itself; dwelling in the deep dark recesses that should be mostly left unstirred at the bottom of the black pot.

But at four in the morning it seems all there is to do is to stare into that black abyss.

Flux level: low, with severe conditions probable by one three double oh.
Long range forecast: rising more slowly

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December 07, 2003


“Wow, that’s good,” he said, standing in front of an unstuck panel, in the studio.
“Well, I’m working on it,” I said.
“But isn’t it finished?” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Why not? “ he said.

And why not indeed? When is a picture finished? When an artist determines it so? When someone wants to buy it? When? People have exhibited canvases with no paint on, people have exhibited canvases turned to the wall showing the reverse of the stretcher. People have held exhibitions with no paintings, just an empty gallery. So what criteria do you use to judge when a painting is finished?

My cousin, who paints landscapes, told me that, painting outside [in the Welsh mountains], when he begins to feel the cold it is time to stop. I can understand that. But I paint over a longer period of time, applying paint, letting it vout for a while, giving it a couple of three coats of looking at then painting some more, and allowing the painting to progress.

Agents close to Giacometti had to sneak into his studio and remove sculptures before he carved them down to nothing.

An artist needs two people in his life, one to inspire him, and one to take the work away when it’s finished.

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oily oily

The oil paint, what a marvellous fellow he is, mostly. Gorgeously thick and buttery. [Butter that has been out of the fridge just long enough to spread easily, but no so long that you can pour it.] There are times, it is true, when the oil paint is hard work. This is a Good Thing.

Oil paint is about the right stuff, earth pigments, bits of rock ground up and heated, real things mixed with oil. So there are differences. Some colours are smoother than others, some colours are gritty, some colours are transparent, some opaque. It is these different qualities that gives oil paint its versatility and flexibility. It is also these different qualities that make learning how to use oil paint a long process.

It’s worth all the angst of being a painter to open a tin of thick rich colour, breathe in the pungent smell of the oil, plunge a spatula into the gloop and lift up, sucking and squishing, a large dollop of paint, and plop it onto the palette. Oil paint must be one of the most delicious substances on earth.

Flux level: steady to moderate, remaining fair, increasing later.

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December 04, 2003

brush laws

The twenty-second Law of Painting states that no matter how many brushes you have in your hand [and 14 is the record so far - all loaded with paint, to a greater or lesser degree, and all held so the bristles aren't touching; looking rather like a random porcupine suddenly startled by a chance encounter with an alien life-form that makes it instantly clear that their ultimate survival relies entirely on porcupine blood]

er... back to the twenty-second Law of Painting... no matter how many brushes you have in your hand you will always need another one that is across the studio in the jug.

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December 03, 2003

pigment white 6

So I make the marks. I commit paint to the panel.
And I leave it.
And I look at it.
And I look at it again.
Then I look at it some more.
Then, just to make sure, I look a bit longer.
And then there’s Titanium White.

Titanium White: pigment white 6 [77891]
Lightfastness: ASTM D4302/1.
an inorganic synthetic opaque white.
TiO2, titanium dioxide, produced from ferrous illmenite by a sulphate process, or [indeed] from rutile ore by the chloride process.
It is slow drying, absolutely inert and permanent.

In there somewhere is the key to its usefulness: it's opaque.
Opaque adj. not transparent or translucent, impenetrable to light.
And I paint the glorious buttery white opaque paste over the panel, over the marks, obscuring the disturbing imagery, scraping it off again to reveal parts that, maybe, on reflection, weren’t perhaps that bad after all. And, with all the misintention of twelfth century Lindisfarne Monks, traces of the old marks show through, and a history begins.

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fish and chips or free choice

That was the option, way back in the second form, that and The Old Boot.

A strangely sized piece of grey sugar paper, a scratchy, nasty, almost-still-a-twiggy, bit of charcoal, and the choice of: ‘fish and chips’, The Old Boot [cracked and covered in clay dust from being too long in the kiln-room], or free choice. We all knew what to choose. Fish and chips was a tasty meal, if a little greasy, but that’s as far as it went, all those words on the newspaper – no way! The Old Boot, well you just had to look at it to lose the will to live. No! We chose free choice, yes!

We could do, we could do - we could do anything: dog fights, in the air, all Spitfires and Messerschmitts, tracer shells and parachutes, twisting and turning – complete with sound effects, ack! ack! ack! ack – yeah! No problem! So we’d pick up the knotty, grubby charcoal and… and – and well, nothing. Er… I’m stuck, sir.

The girl in the corner, with the beautiful hair, who didn’t say much, drew The Old Boot, and not only got top marks, got her picture put in a frame on the wall of the corridor to the Art Room.

Flux level: remaining steady, no change expected until later.

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future shock

Reeling from the synaesthetic shock of the post-reductionist paleocybernetic age we have eschewed the de-constructed ideas of the post-modern generation and are now found embracing a more ethnographic approach to the dissemination of information-based data-relevant depictions of social attitudes while… oh, sorry, I lost it there for a minute, normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


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December 02, 2003


Big session yesterday [more long than tall, it has to be said]. Two Unstuck Models, a lot of white paint and the complete works of Shakespeare. I want words on these pictures, you see. Text as it's called in art circles [and indeed in many other circles].

But text is a dominant form. Words will be read if they can be – our brains are conditioned that way. Or rather the left-hand side of our brain is. The left-hand side wants to know things, and wants them labelled if possible. The right-hand side is happy with images and feelings and a sort of smooth, random, experience. But the left-hand side loves the words.

So as soon as there is a recognisable word, any images come second. I don’t want that. I am trying to get text onto the pictures at the same level as the other marks. I’m trying to get the text firing the right-hand side of the brain. So I put it on backwards, or in foreign languages, or both. So it isn’t an actual text so much as an implied text, with all the connotations of history, learning, libraries, dust and echoes of Umberto. Old books, knowledge, understanding. Then I make pictures.

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no time to paint

The best time to paint is when it is almost, but not quite, entirely impossible to do so. When you have to be home in twenty minutes, when you have to go to Dunford Bridge and shoot a door in for someone, when you’ve got an unstuck model coming round. When there is barely time to squeeze the paint out of the tube or open the tin. Then you notice a little something that needs a bit of adjustment, and you pick up a brush and without the time to worry or think or fret the marks are invariably good marks that work.

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blank panels and tricky visions

It must be alchemy, surely: to bring something from nothing. First there must be a vision, or maybe before the vision an emotion, a passion, as I have mentioned earlier in the diaries. But a passion is a long standing thing; it’s a big feeling, existing over time.

A passion over a long period can provide a vision. This vision may be tangible and therefore readily palpable – transposed into physical being. But the vision may be abstract and composed of feelings and puzzles which are hard to put down.

When faced with the blank panel, the blank paper, the blank canvas; the vast expanse of white nothingness; with no meaning, no delineation, no clues; it is so hard to bring something new forward. The temptation is to go with what has been done before, what is familiar, what is safe.

So find a new element, a new piece of the puzzle perhaps, that will move things on. And grab the brush like a warrior’s sword and make a mark – just a mark. Then things get [slightly] easier.

Flux level, at one three double oh yesterday: high, remaining good, falling steadily to moderate, possible fug in quiet periods.

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