Patrick Heron’s Yellow Painting and has a painterly surface with broken colours and shapes underneath, and ‘colours’ floating on top … so a little like an Ian McKeever in being layered, but without any spaces.
Yellow Painting, Oil paint on canvas, 152.4 × 213.8 cm, 1958 May/June 1959 1958–9
This has the strange effect of both both hinting at depth but also of highlighting the picture plane. With McKeever you can travel through and into the layers and come out again, and travel across the surface of the painting.
The Heron painting creates a strange calmness in me which I can’t explain, which is both peaceful and dynamic at the same time.
It’s almost as if you’re in a ‘magical’ reality of shapes in a yellow mist, which extend to infinity, but you only ‘see’ the elements immediately in front of you.
Firstly I laid down a few shapes that I may paint over or may be ‘at the front’ of my painting.
Painting 3, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
Then I completed the first layer. As I couldn’t buy any Artisan thinner because of stock delay associated with Brexit I used water (with my water soluble oil paints). There were two problems with this: firstly the paint lightens and then dries darker… I tried to overcome this by mixing the colour without water first, making sure it was what I what I wanted and that I had mixed sufficient paint, and then thinned it; secondly the water evaporates very quickly (more like acrylics) and the paint thickens, so I had to work quickly. With the Artisan thinner the paints remain workable all day.
1st layer, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
This was a fascinating exercise as one colour and shape suggested another. I have in mind that I am going to add layers on top of this layer, so this under-layer is more to create visual ambiguity than be readable… I’ll probably add at least three more layers. This means some some shapes will be almost obliterated while I’l leave other areas open to show through.
I can’t predict the finished painting as I have no idea what I am going to do, but it will be significantly different from the painting above.
I was surprised that this almost worked as simple coloured shapes.
If I wasn’t layering the painting I would use bigger blocks of colour and wouldn’t leave the white around the shapes. Also, this is the first time that a 60 x 60 cm canvas has felt very small.
2nd layer, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
As as step in a process I’m happy with this.
The cadmium layer has occluded the background and unified the painting, though it’s still much too clean and the edges are too sharp.
I will add another more painterly layer.
3rd layer, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
This is beginning to work… though the 60 x 60 canvas seems very restrictive… as does my range of mark making as for this I am limited to my old brushes. I would like to add new brushes and new mark making like drizzling and scratching.
I like the occlusion in the ground, and the suggested shapes and tones underneath. I used slightly thicker paint and used a hogs hair brush.
Early days but I’m getting better at judging my materials… how much/and with what thinned… how this affects which brush I choose… thinking of surface texture and if I want brushstrokes… and do I want a glossy or matt finish?
I think I might get away with one more layer. Paint light blue around the small lemon yellow square; maybe three short horizontal lines top right somewhere (though I don’t want it to look like a number 5 dice); and paint out the circle with alizarin crimson?
The rectangles are maybe a little too ‘clear’, but it’s difficult to judge. I don’t want it to look like there are only two layers. My aim is to link the layers and also look as if there are ‘windows’ cut into the yellow fog.
4th layer, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm
I like this, and although I can see lots wrong with it… it’s moving in the right direction.
There are some interesting rhythms with the repeated square shapes, echo’s of colour, and the little yellow square looks like it’s floating, which is very pleasing. Stylistically it’s a cross between geometric and abstract expressionism (and I could use a much bigger canvas) which don’t quite mix, but I’m discovering my voice and this is an experiment that works on lots of levels.
My final Patrick Heron influenced painting
Patrick Heron, Two Vermilions, Green and Purple in Red, Acrylic on canvas, 122.9 cm x 1523.9 cm, 1965
I decided to overpaint some old acrylic canvases to try out some ideas.
I printed out the Heron painting and matched my colours to the print but as you can see my red is nothing like the intensity or hue of Heron’s original work. This has made my realise just how much the illustrations in books must vary. I had noticed this at galleries where the posters in the shop (or illustrations in the exhibition book) were very different from the paintings I’d just seen – usually the colours were much more luminous and saturated than the original. Sometimes the posters almost look like different paintings.
I painted this freehand straight onto the canvas interpreting Heron’s shape, and seem to have produced something much more ‘primitive’. This made me think about shape and how important element it is when using large blocks of solid colour.
Having just read the chapter 1944a on Mondrian in [Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson.] I realise that different art has different visual languages. And all languages have rules. I am a native English speaker and use the rules without realising, somebody from China or Russia would have to ‘learn’ these rules. Because Mondrian was making ‘visual rules’ for himself and then breaking them I now realise that (even if we don’t know it) we are all using a visual language when we paint because if we don’t use a visual language we produce gibberish.
Equally, within any one visual language, we each have a very distinct personal voice just as we have when we speak or write.
What I am doing now is learning the visual language of abstraction.
1st shape of my ‘ground’ paintings, 41 x 51 cm, oil on acrylic on canvas.
I really like this shape, it reminds me of Picasso and Moore, and feels quite sculptural?
Photographed in shadow (on shadow setting in my DSLR) then put through automatic correction on Mac which has ‘resaturated’ the red and put my colours much nearer to Heron’s. Though this does raise the question as to how much colour enhancement (if any) there was on Heron’s painting.
Completed ‘shape’ painting, Oil on canvas, 41 x 51 cm
What is very striking, is how the visual language is so different on this than my McKeever styled painting, my stripe painting, or my ‘opaque’ overlaid painting.
My large abstract shape canvas:
Mother Child, Oil on canvas, 61 x 76 x 2 cm, 2021
This was painted in one go over about three hours after studying many Patrick Heron ‘Shape’ paintings.
I found that working in the moment is perfect for me, it’s just like acting.
When I act I research the character, backstory, personality, life, how their day has been so far, what they are thinking before the scene… and when the director says ‘Action’ I turn ‘me’ off, and allow the character I’ve built to react in the moment.
So too with this painting, when I started there was nothing in my head. I was not following a plan. I started with some red paint, picked a brush and started making a mark. When I was happy with this mark I mixed another colour and continued… adjusted the red… added another colour… and so on for three to four hours.
Of the three to four hours I spent a maximum of two hours applying paint to the canvas, the rest of the time was spent looking and thinking (without words) until shapes and colours suggested themselves to me.
In my book Foster, H. et al. (2011) Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. (s.l.): Thames & Hudson. I have just read about the old masters after WW11 [the chapter 1944b, 313 to 317). Page 313 talks about Matisse and his new philosophy of art he developed around 1935.
Matisse characterised this approach with the word ‘unconscious’. Unconscious not in a Freudian sense but as a “reflex”. It meant he adopted a two-tier working process. He would first “take possession of his model” and learn from it everything he needed to know. In his case this was an analytical study in charcoal with many pentimenti; then when he had reached saturation he would have an… ‘explosion of line drawings, done almost in a trance and without possibility of correction, his hand guided by sheer instinct, just like the acrobat or high-wire artist who will fall if he starts thinking about what he is currently doing and its dangers. By 1941 Matisse had fully mastered this dual temporality in the graphic realm.
My process is not graphic, but the dual temporality of preparation and then ‘reflexive’ creation is exactly the same.
Matisse went on to conquer this same dual temporality in painting. He painted all his Venice interiors in this way and the openness of all these paintings is accounted for by them (individually) having been painted in a matter of hours. Experts have examined the final paintings and found many false starts. Once he was ready to paint reflexively he would begin a canvas, if it went wrong he would wipe the canvas and start again. The finished painting was the one where he started and made no mistakes until it was finished.
For me, the issue is false finishes not false starts. For example, if I am painting a layered painting when is the painting at its strongest?
There is also one more similarity with Matisse. At the end of his life he made his cutout paintings. Here he felt he had finally solved the eternal conflict between his drawing and his colour. He was, in effect, drawing directly into colour.
By painting line and form directly onto the canvas in colour I am also combining drawing and colour.
The final triumph of matisse was the modulation of white ground and his electrifying saturation of colours. This is something I’m only just becoming aware of and can work on as I develop my practice.