Diary of a painting – Phil Illingworth 

Diary of a painting

I abandoned my initial thoughts for this piece because it just wasn’t doing it for me. I’m wanting to break a few more rules. Going back to my own set of basics, reminding myself that it can be harder to strip things away, but important if I want to stay engaged with the things that interest me.

So I start again:

Canvas – raw 12oz cotton duck
Wood – 3mm beech dowel, cut to length, sharpened to a fine point on a sanding wheel. There are 46 spikes.
White linen thread – this is the last of a very old bobbin of thread I found in a box of miscellaneous items at an antiques auction. I make a mental note that I need to find some more from somewhere because I’m going to run out very soon. I have enough to finish this piece, but not enough to start another.
Wadding – I have decided I’m going to pad the piece again; this will function as my support in place of stretchers.
Paint – I have decided to use enamels. There is a particular tactility to the finish that interests me – it almost has a quality of a material other than paint. I suppose the clue is in the name….

I cut two panels of canvas to size and start to hand-sew them together. I’m crap at sewing. Machine sewing would be quicker and neater, but it wouldn’t be right. I find hand sewing somehow reminiscent of the brush stroke or mark-making, perhaps drawing. There’s also a connection to tacking canvas onto wooden stretchers, and to stitching pieces of canvas together to make larger paintings. Yet the canvas is no longer merely incidental; in a manner of speaking I’m altering the status of the material and bringing it to the fore. The stitching process is contemplative, repetitive, and rewarding. I mull over the work I’m making, sometimes think about altogether different things, while I sew. I frequently prick my finger and ponder what I would do if I bled onto the canvas. I can’t sew with a plaster on my finger (I’ve tried) so I carry on because I’d rather risk bleeding on the canvas and not have to stop. The form builds slowly but surely, starting to show the transformation from two to three dimensions. My stitching isn’t perfect, there are flaws. I struggled with that imperfection when I first started using this technique in my practice, but I’m reconciled to it now.

I think I might lay the spikes out in a regular pattern even though it won’t be immediately apparent. I have tended to use random arrangements, but this time I want to imply something specific. Randomness demands equal deliberation, but invokes different implications. I experiment with equidistant points arranged on concentric circles. I use the mac for this stage because it is precise (that might be my Obsessive/Compulsive side showing, right there). I settle on a starting point of five – a pentagon – because it sets up a kind of syncopated pattern that I like the look of. Although the visual rhythm has a concrete foundation, it simultaneously wrong-foots. I like to think that sums up a lot of what I do.

I decide to use just black and yellow.

White gesso primer to seal the wood, then a coat of light grey matt enamel as an undercoat. I use blocks of polystyrene pierced with holes to hold the spikes upright while they dry. Next I measure and mark the spikes with a ruler and pencil, where I’m going to paint the bands of colour. I’m conscious that applying the paint is going to be fiddly. I’m slightly tense about this because I know the yellow I have chosen isn’t heavily pigmented and I’m going to have to apply at least two coats.

I have had very little direct human contact during the first few weeks of making this piece, certainly during the major decision making stages. Being isolated has undoubtedly impacted on my day to day thoughts, but I wonder to myself if this has an effect on how I think as I work?

I’m listening to:
Massive Attack
Frank Sinatra
Miles Davis
David Bowie
Grace Jones
Van Morrison
John Martyn

I choose my music according to my mood and what I’m doing. Sometimes I start to listen to something, but stop because it irritates me – even though the same music will probably be perfect for other times. I stopped using shuffle on my iPod for the same reason.

I don’t watch much TV, but I have been watching The Missing and The Apprentice, and my guilty pleasure is Strictly. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to that, not least because I don’t have the first idea what makes a good dancer. I watch The Shining, Scarface, and Eraserhead on DVD.

I have devised a production system to paint the bands of colour. Yellow first, in two coats. My thoughts drift, and in my head I calculate the number of yellow strips as I paint: 46×4=184, so x 2 coats = 368. This stage is monotonous and makes my neck stiff, so I paint roughly half in a session, and then have to wait 8 hours between coats. I’m pleased and relieved that two coats is enough.

Now the second coat is dry I look at the yellow strips against the bands of grey undercoat. It looks better balanced than the black, yet at the same time more unsettling. So I change my mind. The unexpected becomes serendipitous when it’s a good thing, a pain in the arse when it’s bad. I embrace serendipity and mix black with white to make the identical grey in gloss.

(there’s a break at this point)

I went out yesterday to buy the last of the materials I need, which felt good. The components for the artwork have been packed away for six weeks, since I last wrote, travelling with me from France to the UK. All sorts of things have taken place in the intervening weeks, none of it directly to do with the artwork, but most of it stopping me getting back on to it. The soundtrack to this period has been the lead-up to the inauguration of Trump. This morning a TV in the background is replaying him chanting “Build that wall” over and over and over again. Ad nauseam. It makes me feel nauseous, and nervous.

I hit a small technical hitch and I need my drill, but it’s still in storage. Bugger. Progress is halted again.

Another ten days has passed but now I have my tools out of storage. We watched 1984 last night, eternally prescient. I feel inexplicably anxious about restarting the artwork, or maybe it’s anticipation. I listen to Ian Dury for the boost while I work, followed by Cream, Pink Floyd, more Massive Attack, then the Pixies. Another couple of hours of finishing and the making comes to an end. Now comes the most difficult phase – deciding if the work is what I want it to be.

Phil Illingworth