Why my Sketches are a bit… Sketchy
A frequent response to my work over recent years has been, ‘I love your sketches and scribbles but where are the finished paintings? What’s it all working towards?’ It’s a question which is based on the preconception that what artists do is go out and make graphic (and sometimes written) notes about the world around them then take them home and lock themselves in their studio, make themselves a coffee, put on some suitable mood music like Finlandia or Vaugham William’s “Lark Ascending” and embark on the long and meticulous process of producing a masterpiece.
When I started painting – more years ago than I care to remember – this was my preconception too. As an art student I envisioned my future as living in an atelier in some Bohemian quarter of Paris where I would spend the day passionately painting away until the arrival of my stunning French girlfriend who, drunk on the aroma of oil and turpentine, would tell me I was a genius then tear off all her clothes and beg me to give her children. This exotic fantasy was doomed to failure by that scourge of all artists – integrity. Artistic integrity isn't some great moral virtue we wear like a badge of honour, it’s an annoying, niggling little voice inside our head which keeps saying, ‘This is all very well but it’s not what you should be doing, whatever anyone says. This is what you should be doing.’ I spent most of my twenties telling that voice to shut up, partly because I thought it was misleading me and partly because I was suffering from that other scourge of all artists – poverty. I was married with two small children by then and “proper” paintings (particularly landscapes) which looked finished and polished and could be hung on a wall in a nice neat frame were what sold (sometimes). The process of producing them, however, involved hours of wandering through the landscape, gazing at horizons and clouds and doing preparatory sketches and studies. In time I began to realise that that was the part I really enjoyed – and not just because sitting in the English countryside with the sun shining and the birds singing is a very pleasant way to pass the time – I enjoyed it even when it was cold and wet and windy – although ‘enjoyed’ may be the wrong word; it was more a sense of ‘rightness’ which was as powerful as the sense of ‘wrongness’ I felt when ensconced in my studio, coffee in hand and Finlandia blaring in my ear.
As time went by and circumstances changed, I came to obey that voice more and more and eventually abandoned the studio altogether. For a time I tried doing “studio” paintings outside, setting myself up with a large canvas which invariably blew off the easel, often landing face down in a cowpat. The Renoiresque idyll of the painter poised among poppies painting some sunlit meadow in a straw hat doesn’t always work in England and I found that, even when it did, it wasn’t satisfying either. What really interested me was speed, brevity, observing and trying to record the fleeting changes of light, colour, texture and mood which is so characteristic of our island landscape. My work consequently became increasing sketchy, scrappy, unfinished and, to some people, incomprehensible. I remember my father wistfully staring at a rather naff vase of flowers I painted when I was eighteen and sighing, ‘If only you’d gone on doing paintings like that, you’d be a millionaire.’ I would never have gone on doing paintings like that but I did find myself wondering about the six-foot tours de force in the style of my heroes such Willem de Kooning or Ivan Hitchens that would never be. But then I thought, ‘It’s already been done, and probably much better than I’ll ever do it. The world is already brimming over with superb paintings of every conceivable size, shape, colour, texture and style so what’s the harm in trying something different?’
Another thought which occurred to me is that rectangular ‘scenes’ or even abstract forms in a frame is not really how we perceive the world around us. We see it in glimpses, in snatches, in flashes, our field of vision is fuzzy at the edges, our eyes pick up little fragments of information which they feed to our brain which either discards them or turns them into something meaningful and sometimes profoundly moving. As human beings our capacity for aesthetic response is one of the miracles of life and, in my view, any attempt to explain or analyse it is futile. Why is it that we can stare at a masterpiece on a wall in the Tate Gallery and feel nothing, then catch a glimpse of sunlight slanting on the grain of an old wooden door and it makes all the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end? No one knows.
We are surrounded by works of art but the real work of art, in the final analysis, is the universe our Maker saw fit to put us in. God, circumstance, cause and effect, accident – whatever you want to call it – wasn’t concerned with creating “real” art or even art at all. The fleeting, ever-changing beauty we see around us is a by-product of creation, in a way, but one without which we cannot survive. It’s this process that I try to imitate in my drawing and painting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. And when it does, it’s usually by accident.