Part 3: Personal Practice: 50 hours: Introductory research: 9 hours

I’m reading Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson and have just had a revelatory moment regarding my practice, see page 269, 1934b.

It says that in 1934 in a publication by Unit One (a group of British artists led by Paul Nash) Henry Moore published a short text called “The Sculptor’s Aims” where he articulates his aesthetic of direct carving in five points. These five aims have an ontological relationship to my painting practice. They also explain why I feel such a connection to the work of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

  1. Truth to material: the sculptor works direct so the material can take its part in shaping an idea. This was in contrast to the traditional model of casting a clay model in bronze or employing a factory of artists to copy the clay model into marble, as used by Rodin. Moore is arguing that the sculptor carves directly into the marble, wood or whatever and that the material has a part in shaping the sculpture. The marble of Rodin statues bore no part in shaping the sculptures, that was done by the clay. Indeed, you could argue that the marble statues were simulacrum because they were copies without an original, their factory made marble having a similar relationship to the clay model as a photograph to its negative (or digital) print.

I am working directly with my materials (in my case paint, additives and different canvases – surfaces and sizes) – so that my materials and how they react together take part in shaping my idea/aesthetic.

2) Full 3D realisation: Moore champions sculpture in the round for its dynamic tension between parts and multiple points of view.

My practice isn’t going down this route (that would be installation art and I like a flat surface). Also you can’t see through my paintings or walk around them so they are not physically 3D. However, I conceive of my paintings as autonomous objects that you can have a relationship with… a special kind of flat sculpture.

3) Observation of natural objects: different principles of form and rhythm are to be drawn from such things as pebbles, bones, trees, and shells.

I am very close to nature, was brought up in the country, and enjoy sketching nature. My practice is to the side of this because I do not want to categorise natural shapes into a ‘language’ and ‘write’ them into my paintings, nor do I want to ‘copy’ natural forms – you can ‘see’ the natural forms in Moore’s work. But by being part of what I am I hope nature will subconsciously, through my responses to my materials, find itself onto my canvases.

4) Vision and expression: sculptors should attend to abstract qualities of design and the psychological human element.

My practice is very much involved with abstract qualities, and as my paintings are my response to the canvas my process is, by its nature, psychological.

5) Vitality: The ultimate goal of a sculpture is an intense life of its own independent of the object it may represent.

I am not trying to ‘represent’ anything, though viewers can (and will) read objects into my paintings. They are created in the moment in an ‘unknowing’ way with the goal that they will have an intense life of their own.

So, there are enough similarities between my practice and Moore’s sculptural classification to make my paintings ontologically sculptural as well as painterly.

Simulacrum/photographs and my work:

The chapter headed 1935 in (Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson) is all about photographs.

I was struck by how photographs removed the aura of originality from art and turned it into a language. All photographs are simulacrum (copies without an original – the negative or digital file is so unlike the printed photograph that photographs are not ‘copies’ of an original). Photographs of art objects allow them to be compared, and the ‘art objects’ are given meaning by that comparison. So the aesthetic component is changed from being ‘beautiful’ into being ‘significant’. (Elements in language gain meaning from their relationship to other elements… it is a rules based system of meaning).

This raises another point… some artists prepared for this new industrial reproduction by making art ideally suited to mechanical reproduction, like the pop art of Andy Warhol. The original has an ‘aura of creation’, and investment value as a rare commodity, but it could be argued that the original was visually similar to the mass produced print.

This is interesting for my practice as I have two audiences I would like to satisfy. Firstly, I would like my canvases to have a life of their own so that they are high value autonomous objects.

Secondly, I believe in art for all which pushes me towards a design style… art designed for mechanical reproduction. You have to see Henry Moore’s sculptures to have a relationship with them. Photographs of his pieces work as ‘language’ in a book, or an aide memoire but only capture one curated view of the infinite number of views of his sculpture.

Now I am aware of it, it’s something I can work out as I develop my practice.

Gestural abstraction:

I have also been doing some research about gestural abstraction as I think that’s where my practice lies – though I don’t want to restrict myself to any one way of painting.

General abstraction is about inner truth and abandoning subject matter. It looks at the act of painting itself and treats the canvas as an arena for the inner world of the artist rather than a space to reproduce or redesign an object.

Artists working in this field create their own visual language and paint with a rawness and immediacy that make the work dramatic. They convey emotional states and are intensely physical, and are an indexical record of an event (making the painting).

And, because of this emotion they are aesthetically pleasing.

This is very helpful in thinking about my work… I would agree with some of it and dispute other areas, most notably the idea that it is intensely physical.

These are the points that resonate for my practice:

  1. Painting is about an inner truth.

  2. Abandoning a subject – my painting is marks on a flat surface relating to other marks, I don’t have a subject.

  3. Not a space to reproduce or redesign an object… this would include semi-abstraction which often looks like a landscape put through an ‘abstraction’ process, so that in essence it’s no different to impressionism… it’s a ‘way’ of painting landscape. That is definitely not what I want to do as I would be painting a subject.

  4. Develop a personal visual language – finding my voice implies finding a personal visual language.

  5. Is aesthetic – in capturing an inner truth painting captures humanity beyond words.

  6. Is intensely physical – here I would disagree… My state is more akin to meditation, or the wordless peace I find in nature.

In my Option I’ve discovered the importance of letting my paintings dry between layers so I am going to start working on multiple canvases. Up to this point I have only ever worked on one (or at most two) paintings at a time so this feels like a major step forward to how I might work in my practice.

Artists research:

As I have already researched a little of the biography of these artists, I am going to focus on their paintings.

Patrick Heron:

Patrick Heron 1920–1999

First painting:

Horizontal Stripe Painting, Oil paint on canvas, 274.3 × 154.8 cm, November 1957 – January 1958

Interestingly this was painted two years after ‘Azalea garden’.

This appeals and is something I would like to paint. I can engage with it as a pleasing whole… it makes me smile. Most importantly, for my practice, it has a life force of its own (is not a painting ‘of’ something… it is itself) and uses the materiality of the paint – in this case the thinness and occasional drip.

The original has a flatness of composition and colour which would lend itself well to mechanical photographic reproduction, yet it’s size and the loose marks on the surface give it an aura of originality. Face to face this would have an imposing physical presence. It’s 9 foot high and 5 foot wide… you could go right up to the surface and lose yourself in the marks or step back and see it as a whole. But as a cinema screen is to a TV the original painting will be to a lap top screen or poster.

And, of course, in this research I have to remember that I am looking at lap top image not the original.

The Tate has this painting: Tate (s.d.) ‘Horizontal Stripe Painting : November 1957 – January 1958’, Patrick Heron, 1957–8. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/heron-horizontal-stripe-painting-november-1957-january-1958-t01541 (Accessed 26/03/2021)…. and quotes Heron as saying, “The reason why the stripes sufficed … was precisely that they were so very uncomplicated as shapes … the emptier the general format was, the more exclusive the concentration upon the experiences of colour itself.”

The painting focus on the formal values which, ironically, are more important for mechanical reproduction than the textural or sculptural values, which are more important for the aura of the original.

The Tate entry further states, ‘… Heron resisted the total abandoning of subject matter and even such works as this have been seen in relation to landscape, the horizontal bands and colours perhaps suggesting the horizon at sunset.

I don’t know what their evidence for this is as I can’t see it. Maybe that was Heron’s interpretation of his own work? Or just that anything horizontal with yellow can be read as a sunset.

I’ve never seen a sunset like this, and doesn’t remind me of a sunset in any way. It looks like pure abstraction, a wonder in colour and light. However, it also looks like a ‘decoration’ for a space. This is supported by the fuller catalogue entry that states it was ‘designed’ to fit into the architecture of a building: The painting was made for the reception area at the London offices of Percy Lund, Humphries and Co Ltd, part of which was being redesigned by the architect Trevor Dannatt to include an enquiry counter, secretarial space, a switchboard and a small waiting area with additional office space in an adjoining room.

The catalogue entry discusses at length how it fits into the space.

Heron also talks about the painting in purely formal terms: ‘Patrick Heron wrote an account of his interests and intentions in this painting for Architecture and Building (loc. cit.):‘My main interest, in my painting, has always been in colour, space and light. My interest in fact is always in space in colour and space in colour is the subject of my painting today to the exclusion of everything else. But the space must never be too deep or the colour too flat. Each painting has to adjust depth to surface in a new and unique manner. Just as you cannot place colour on a flat surface without partly destroying its flatness (it is a physical property of colour that different colours in juxtaposition appear to advance or recede), so also you cannot make marks on a flat surface without creating a purely surface organisation, i.e. a design. Painting has therefore to synchronise, in every gesture or statement, two distinct types of organisation—one is illusionistic depth, the other across the surface of the canvas. The chance to work out this perennial problem of painting (of flattening deep space onto canvas) within the physical setting of an architectural arrangement which invites it —this only occurs very rarely.

His concern is very definitely about two things: the illusionistic depth in colour and the surface organisation… both formalistic qualities not naturalistic ones.

Heron also talks about his process: ‘All my stripe paintings were done in very thin oil colour (thinned with lashings of turpentine; and most of the colours were used unmixed, i.e. at full strength as they came straight from the tube—this has been my practice since about 1950 actually).

I have the option of using thinner, glaze, or a mixture and of building up glazes or just adding a single layer.

Second painting:

Yellow Painting, Oil paint on canvas, 152.4 × 213.8 cm, 1958 May/June 1959 1958–9

Another large painting with a big physical presence (over a meter and a half tall by 2 meters wide) that I am ‘viewing’ on my Mac – on a perfectly smooth glass monitor – my Mac image is 8.5 x 11.5 cm… that’s 0.3% of the surface area of the original.

It’s a thumbnail of the original that works as an attractive design.

But the 99.7% of the surface that I can’t see, with its texture and colour, makes the original into a totally different product.

A description of the work is very instructive: Yellow Painting : October 1958 May/June 1959 is a large abstract composition dominated by a deep yellow ground on which appear soft-edged rectangles and squares in shades of brown, terracotta, green and yellow. The yellow colour is built up over darker layers of underpainting, giving the work an appearance of depth and a muted, earthy tone. In certain areas the yellow paint is applied in dappled brush marks, while in others there are long streaks and dense patches of yellow. While many of the rectangles and squares that appear across the work have been painted over the yellow ground, the outlines of some are formed from areas where the yellow has not been applied, so that the darker layer shows through, creating the outlines of the shapes. A black rectangle appears at roughly the centre of the painting, with edges softened by blurry brown and mauve underpainting blended into the yellow ground, and the outline of a circular shape has been scraped into it, likely with a paintbrush handle. Other similarly sized squarish shapes float towards the edges of the black rectangle, painted in terracotta to its left, bright yellow below, and brown and yellow-green to the right. The paint appears to have been applied at a variety of speeds in different areas of the canvas, as is suggested by drips and flecks that are visible on the topmost layers.

This is the style of work I am just beginning to explore with my multiple glazes.

Heron said that he, ‘merely pushing fluid paint this way and that, with a blunt brush, until each colour area met finally along a blurred and rather fuzzy edge.’ (Heron quoted in Vivien Knight, ‘The Pursuit of Colour’, in Barbican Art Gallery 1985, p.10.) This produced a much more gestural surface (than his stripe painting) which reminds me of the American Abstract Expressionists such as Rothko.

Heron said abstract painting allowed him to, ‘… deal more directly and inventively … with every single aspect of the painting that is purely pictorial, i.e. the architecture of the canvas, the spatial interrelation of each and every touch … of colour, the colour character, the paint character … with a sense of freedom quite denied me when I still had to keep half an eye on a ‘subject’. (Quoted in Knight 1985, p.9.)

This is mirrors what I feel about my practice.

Heron acknowledges how his garden subconsciously influenced his painting and that his shapes may have been based on rocks and hedges. The inference is that his work wasn’t a conscious echo of organic shapes. This is in contrast to Henry Moore who directly collected and studies organic shapes and used them as a ‘physical language’ in his work.

I feel connected to Heron’s subconscious use of natural forms.

Painting 3:

Two Vermilions, Green and Purple in Red, Acrylic on canvas, 122.9 cm x 1523.9 cm, 1965

A smaller painting just over a meter high by one and a half meters wide.

This would fit into a large middle class house so wouldn’t need to be hung in a mansion, public space, or lobby. It is less painterly with a much flatter surface, and more design led, than his the earlier paintings. It could almost be a poster designed for mechanical reproduction rather than a high end work with aura. It’s also painted in acrylic, a less expensive (and quicker) medium than oil paint.. To be cynical one could say that he’s shifted markets from high end, large, painterly works to smaller more commercial domestic pieces. The smaller canvases, cheaper paint and quicker turnover would all reduce his costs.

This reminds me much more of a Warhol than a Rothko because it doesn’t have the surface complexity or size of a Rothko, and is design led.

I chose this painting because it was a later painting and is nearer, in some respects, to what I am painting now. It largely removes the problem of a complex painterly surface and depth, and replaces it with a beautiful surface organisation.

It’s almost like his earlier paintings were a jazz trio (painterly surface, space in colour, and surface organisation) and two of the musicians have gone out for a fag leaving ‘surface organisation’ on his own.

That said, the colour and spatial composition is exquisite and it would be useful for my learning me to paint something similar. However, I will use oil instead of acrylic.

Sam Francis:

B. 1923 – d. 1994

His entry in Artnet says: Sam Francis (s.d.) At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/sam-francis/ (Accessed 26/03/2021).:

Sam Francis was an American artist known for his exuberantly colorful, large-scale abstract paintings. His practice incorporated elements from Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Impressionism, and Eastern philosophy to create a unique style of painterly abstraction. Influenced by Jackson Pollock and Clyfford Still, he is more closely associated to the work of Helen Frankenthaler, as he was more interested in the formal arrangement of the picture plane than the expressivity of the individual artist. “Painting is about the beauty of space and the power of containment,” he once reflected.

Looking through his paintings he uses a mixture of mediums such as acrylic on paper and oil on canvas. I am drawn towards his oil on canvas work.

Many of his works are what might be termed drip pour with loose defined shapes and fine ‘drizzle’ lacework surrounding them. Although fresh and pleasing these are not psychological enough for me.

First painting:

Red and Black, Oil on canvas, 195.6 x 97.2 cm, 1954

For some reason this reminds me of William Blake?

The overlaying of thin loose paint gives it visual depth, in a similar way to Heron (though without the textured painterly surface of his American abstract expressionist influenced works). It has an individual aura, which would be accentuated by the size, nearly two meters by a meter.

The surface organisation (design) is not as strong as Heron and wouldn’t work as interior design, so is not as suited to mechanical reproduction, but this is compensated for by the psychological element… maybe that’s where I am connecting it to Blake? People would buy this because they liked the artist more than for its play of colours. I think Heron’s work is much more commercial.

Francis used quite a small brush (I think) as his drips are small and short, more like feathering than strong vertical lines.

I’m not drawn to Francis’ painting on a second look, though I think I might use his idea of the petal like repetition of thin brushstrokes to ‘correct/rescue’ one of my ‘Option’ paintings.

Conclusion:

I have found that I connect with Patrick Heron.

It also struck me that there is a strong connection between Heron and Matisse, both are driven by colour and both had an early connection to fabric design.

In a Guardian article about Matisse: Kennedy, M. (2005) ‘Matisse’s debt to textiles revealed’ In: The Guardian 02/03/2005 At: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/mar/02/arts.artsnews (Accessed 26/03/2021) Kennedy says that rainbow-coloured textiles rescued Henri Matisse from the muddy sugar beet fields of northern France and made him one of the best loved colourists of the 20th century. She says: A dazzle of the fabrics he collected all his life, from scraps bought from Parisian flea markets when he was a student to North African embroidered wall hangings and haute couture gowns collected in the 30s has gone on display in London – for the first time alongside the paintings they inspired.

And quotes Hilary Spurling, who has just completed the second volume of her epic biography of the artist:

Ms Spurling believes textiles directly inspired his use of colour. Matisse was brought up in the textile town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, where there was no museum or gallery, and the curators believe he did no oil paintings before the age of 19 or 20.

But the town’s weavers were famous for outrageous colour and pattern: sample albums sizzle with silks in hot pinks and purples, and iridescent blues and greens.

“This was a place where everything was pretty dull, except the fabrics, where the streams from the dye works would literally run pink or scarlet – that’s what trained his eye in colour,” Ms Spurling said.

Heron also came into contact with colourful commercial designs as his first job was designing silk scarves for his father’s company when he was 14. Tate (s.d.) Who is Patrick Heron? – Who Are They?. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/kids/explore/who-is/who-patrick-heron (Accessed 26/03/2021).

Matisse and Heron are my two favourite artists and are both driven by colour. They both soaked up bright colours and surface organisation (design) at a young age which underpins their entire artistic oeuvres. They added a painterly understanding to their colour sensitivity and turned commercial ‘patterns’ into high art.

This is exactly what I’d like to do in my practice. I’d like to mix space in colour, surface organisation and painterly qualities (such as a textural surface) to make art with an individual aura that is also mechanically reproducible.

So, for the practical element of Part 3 of my Personal Practice I’m going to explore Patrick Heron’s abstracts. I am also going to work on several paintings simultaneously, which is how I imagine I will work when I have my painting practice.

Here are the paintings I am going to work on:

  1. A glaze painting that I have started for fun and material experimentation.

  2. A stripe painting – as an early Patrick Heron. I’m hoping that by following the ‘process’ I will learn more about colour and composition.

  3. A complex Rothko influenced Patrick Heron painting like his, ‘Yellow Painting’. As above this is not to copy a Heron but as a learning exercise.

  4. As above I will paint in the style of ‘Two Vermilions, Green and Purple in Red’, but in oil paint. Again by going through the process I hope to develop my style and (specifically) learn more about surface organisation.

  5. If I have time I will paint a personally voiced abstract based on everything I have learned from Part 3… if I haven’t time I will carry this over to part 4.

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