‘The theory of Chinese painting is based on a fundamental distinction between amateurs and professionals: only the art of amateurs is deemed to have true artistic value, as they alone are individual creators, whereas professionals are mere artisans who practise their craft on the same footing as carpenters, potters and other anonymous manual workers. No amount of skill and beauty can redeem the paintings of the professionals and make up for the spiritual deficiency that taints their origins. Technical virtuosity and seductiveness in a painting are considered vulgar, as they precisely suggest the slick fluency of a professional hand answering a client’s commission and betray a lack of inner compulsion on the part of the artist – for the professional works for an external reward whereas the amateur seeks self cultivation; to the professional, painting is only a trade; to the amateur, it is a spiritual discipline. Therefore, it was hardly a paradox if, for instance, a great painter of the Qing period could inscribe on one of his masterpieces the defiant calligraphic statement: ‘What I fear most is that my painting may look competent.’ A certain form of clumsiness was valued by the painters as it clearly established the non-professional character of their work and vouched for the purity of their inspiration.’ ~ Simon Leys
I typically work on multiple pieces at a time. As individual pieces begin to express an identity personalities emerge. While I work I often make up songs in my head about other artists I admire, my dog Sheldon T Miller and dumb stuff in general. While the paintings become real the songs rarely go beyond the space in my head, but sometimes I’ll sing into the voice recorder on my phone and pick up a guitar. If I’m really having fun I might record it. Paintings and songs sometimes happen together. As I paint I try real hard not to think about the paintings I’m making. I tend to work in bursts and I attempt to archive monthly. I don’t use titles. I have a numbering system that works for me. I scan work most of the time because I can’t photograph art to save my life and goodness knows I’ve tried.
On one Tuesday evening, trash day eve in Ambler, PA, I was feeling pretty good about getting my trash and recycle bins on the curb and headed down to my basement to paint. I have some very nice work of some of my favorite artists, but on a shelf above my head where I work is a paint can lid with a chicken painted on it with sequins by one of my favorite people, James Prez. As I worked on what is now SC10(3.17) I had song lines running through my head about how I wish I could make magical art like James Prez. I hummed and sang a twangy little thing like the piece I was working on. I was having such a good time that I picked up a guitar and sang a few spontaneous verses. My painting uses acrylic and flashe paint from Dick Blick, Artist Craftsman Supply and Jerry’s Artarama. The painting is on store-bought 8” x 10”, pre-stretched canvas from Dick Blick. The piece has texture, dots and some little horizontal lines my wife called Frankenstein stitches. That isn’t what I saw, but she tolerates my art and songs so it works for me.
When I’m not humming my own melodies while I paint I like to listen to folks like, Townes Van Zandt, Hayes Carll, Todd Snider, Tom Russell. Terry Allen, Joe Ely, Richard Thompson, Steve Earl, Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Doc Watson, Gram Parsons, Dwight Yoakam, Dale Watson and James McMurtry (to name a few favorites).
I am very inspired by the work of artist friends I’ve made over the years through social media such as facebook and Instagram. I don’t think I could make it through the day without looking and listening.
Diary of a painting
I have a new studio in my home, right in the center of the town. It is a change and it takes time for me to find a rhythm in this new space. I see green and trees around me but all the noises are urban, it is filled with light, quite a change from my previous studio. I want to make something that feels more crafted, handmade, and more vulnerable perhaps. I chose the burlap for that, it is coarse and wonky. The threads are loose and irregular and when I stretch it over the wood the warp and weft of its weave bend and pull off center. I like its imperfections. It has a character before I touch it. I titled this Superhero because it exceeded my expectations.
Bright Yellow Tempera / Cinnabar Green Light / Venetian Red /Perm. Yellow Light / Emerald Green / Perm. Red Light/ Cadmium Red Medium/ Ultramarine/ Naples Yellow Red /Chrome Green/Lamp Black/ Titanium White
Radiohead, The Bend/ The Killers, Sawdust/Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald / Jimmy Guffrie, Free Fall/ Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, The Boatman’s Call (I plucked a recent title from this, Far From Me)
The bad girl by Mario Vargas Llosa/ Van Gogh’s letters /Embers by Beckett /
Beer with a painter: Tal R on Hyperallergic.
Joanne Greenbaum/Joan Miro, /Joan Synder/ Elizabeth Cummings/ Richard Aldrich,
a double painting\\
when I first started painting I always began with a perfectly prepared plain white surface. Clean, fresh and ready. Nowadays I plunder old paintings to make new works or prepare new supports with bold coloured ground(s). Old work underneath works well, adding a push and pull tension and allows for serendipity – a silver lining found in old paint becomes a future foundation.
I didn’t know at the time but eventually the smaller painting comes with a partner work.
Untitled (Post A works)122x122cm plus 60x49cm (attached) oil on canvas x2 2017.
Starting anew with a 2013 portrait-y painting (in landscape) – its ok, but not good enough to keep.
Have ideas to make ‘pumpkin head paintings’ – more about form than expression..
Blocked out the new form in bright oranges, greens, yellows…. what was I thinking..
Knock it back a bit. abandon
…Flip the work to portrait and lay out tubes of
Michael Harding Unbleached Titanium White
Old Holland Zinc White
Windsor and Newton Neo Cadmium Red
Old Holland Flesh Tint
Old Holland Mars Black
Michael Harding Vandyke Brown
-a palette partly inspired by recently looking at Rauschenberg paintings
Old Holland Medium
Starting with no particular thought but to erase the bright glaring inept previous surface. begin scrubbing on unbleached titanium white with a favourite stumpy brush. add some greys. soon a form begins to emerge as the paint is pushed and scribbled across the surface. I find myself on home territory – shaping a head of sorts.
Play it out slowly – without self imposed pressure to make it one way or another.
sees where it leads.
The colour(s) is good?
Is it reflecting how I am feeling? I don’t want to think too closely about this. Shut out what this painting is looking like because it probably looks like me. Still painful, still too close. a family death. I am scared that it may look like me.
I leave it alone for now.
Hoist out a lovely big pre stretched/oil primed John Jones stretched canvas that has been waiting for sometime. I hunt about for something rich to lay over the bright white surface.
Grand thoughts… make a big painting.
I find an end of tube – Winsor Newton Cadmium Red Deep Hue – a pinkish red. Thin it out and set to with a big brush to get a decent covering of it. Propping it up on the cupboard out of the way to dry, the sun shines through the window – it lights up the room with its exhilarating saturated colour. its a relief. music plays. a dance at the end of the day.
back at the head painting.
its at a delicate stage. its roughly made. is its meaning obvious? it doesn’t matter – but I don’t want to lose its intent.
I don’t want to lose its uncertainty. the form is obvious enough. a little grey. a little black. what now?… wipe it back just a bit..
photograph it and leave it alone.
propping it out of the way against the big pinkish red canvas in the afternoon light startles me. over the next few days I keep looking at it. It seems right. It works well, it works for me. My eyes can’t quite see the head so clearly against the lively pinky-red.
I look at the cross bars on the back of big canvas and figure out how I can fix them together. It may be an autobiographical piece of work but what isn’t?
music: Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future – Underworld. Skeleton Tree & Push the Sky Away Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Chill FM & my Spotify playlist.
reading: Guston by Robert Storr, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brien, Paintbritain twitter
I painted ‘dunkelheit hält alles an sich 2017’ (49x51cm) in January/February 2017 on beautiful 18mm B-grade birch ply.
I bought a 1,22 x 2,44 m sheet of this last year, cut it up with my jigsaw, sanded the pieces and priming the surfaces with oils or varnish (though sometimes I leave them raw).
This painting has been primed with linseed oil. It is quite a typical painting for me in that it has been build up or constructed over time in a rather oblique fashion – through successive adding and removing of figures, lines, layers of colour and texture. I used pressed pigments (conté, pastels) and acrylic paints. Colours in this painting (as far as I remember): Ivory and Mars Black, Zync and Titanium Whites, Cadmium Yellow, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine, Titan Buff, Raw Sienna, white, brown and black conté (Carrés Esquisse de Conté).
Terry is always very interested in the colours used in the making of paintings and I know that many other painters are too. It is not something I can talk about very well as my approach to colour is entirely intuitive and I do not think about it in an abstract way but rather use it as circumstances suggest. At the beginning of this painting for example I had a rather lovely mixed brown left over from a previous painting and hating waste I used it to tint the birch (which was golden and shimmered in the light – the sanding and oil finish made it into a very seductive, precious object). Then the next thing I did was in response to that brown – I rubbed some of it off again to let the surface ‘breath’ a bit more. That created a vague, smokey atmosphere that was asking for something definite or substantial to contrast with. So I responded with a conté (iron-oxide) line drawing. After some looking and working on other paintings in between, I saw how I could take the next step – there was something interesting going on with two shapes in the centre, a wrapping and surrounding which I liked. Playing around with this took me a few steps further, then it became too rigid and I decided to sand some of the paint back again and do some more looking and turning-away, working on other paintings in the meantime. Often I will find the next step for a painting while I am working on another. In this case it was the Yellow I was using on ‘shanten 2017’ which I was working on nearly concurrently to ‘dunkelheit…’. I could see that the yellow would push this painting on and that worked well – further opportunities opened up in the wake of introducing it which brought me quite close to the finish of the painting. The very final move was to apply a very thick, textured White to the centre. I sat with that for a while and returned to look a couple of times until I was absolutely certain it was finished. Since then, the painting has grown on me more and more. As time passes I can judge my paintings more clearly and appreciate their quality.
I used to give utilitarian titles to my paintings but changed this over the last couple of years or so. They are now more considered and personal. This painting’s title is from a Rilke poem I translated for a close friend during that time:
Oh darkness, whence I came
I love you more than the flame
That so confines the world,
in that it shines
only for some exclusive
beyond that it remains illusive.
Darkness though, holds everything close:
creatures and flames, animals
How it gathers
humankind and deity
And thus it may be: with great might
Something stirs close to me.
I believe in night.
I believe in that which thus far remains unsaid.
I want to set my pious notions free.
What no one yet dared to desire,Will soon be second nature to me.
During the making of this painting I read and listened to audiobooks of fiction:
^^’I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ by Maya Angelou,
‘Abendland’ by Michael Köhlmeier,
‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler;
and non-fiction: various articles of political analysis (mostly online), Drift into Failure by Sidney Dekke and some other texts on systems thinking, risk management, incident investigation and clinical governance in general (for my job);
I saw: ‘Moonlight’ by Barry Jenkins,
‘Play me Something’ by Timothy Neat and John Berger,
‘Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000’ by Alain Tanner and John Berger;
Gorky’s ‘The Lower Depths’ at the Arcola Theatre;
^^I took a trip to Scotland and walked along the coast from Cromarty to Rosemarkie.
I was mostly listening to BBC Radio 4 and 3 and Spotify:
The catalogue ‘Contemporary Masters from Britain: 80 British Painters of the 21st Century‘ is now available from Amazon. Currently available for £22.70 (£5.39 of each sale goes towards the exhibition costs). Essays by Matthew Krishanu, Judy Tucker and Terry Greene as well as colour reproductions of each of the artists paintings. 198 pages.
BY purchasing a copy you will be helping the show a little more as well as gaining a printed record of this wonderful exhibition.
PS The book really does look good.
Linen with natural dyes, acrylic and oil paint, wood, steel brackets
170 x 110 cm
Journeying to the studio, via the post office to collect a package. Cycling through the rain, which started as soon as I left the flat. By the time I arrive at the studio I’m dressed in beads of rain. I’m not ready yet to look at the paintings on the wall. Sit on the floor and think about how the sky looked outside. That kind of ungraspable sheet of dirty white cloud, stained heavily here and there, but fresh, refreshingly bright. The post is a book, Simon Winchester’s account of Krakatoa. It is humbling, to read of forces of an incomprehensible violence, and imagine the smog and the affect it had on colour, a landscape ravaged and transformed forever. It takes a while but slowly I’ll admit this isn’t a day for confronting my paintings at all, so I won’t paint.
Another day and I’m mixing up some Robersons oil to get the perfect foam-banana yellow. Adding colour to the surface of the painting, to smother the knowledge that its over. This is not the painting I want to make anymore. The flurry of excitement that was there when we began has grown tired. Walk out of the studio, pick up lunch. Think about how much I want to go and visit the Rauchenberg retrospective, but know that today isn’t the right day, today it would be intrusive.
Back in the studio, inflicting a delicate tantrum upon my painting. Tearing it away from the support and in half. Realising immediately a fascination for the marks that reveal themselves as the surface I created is destroyed. These underlying marks of consequence have polluted the linen. Patchy greens stained with black oil washed thinly and becoming grey. Orange claims ground without compromise when opaque, and glows in the places where it has fallen over a bed of white. Crevices and folds hold their own in the linen now, stiffened from a time spent tightly bound to the wooden frame. A perfect horizontal line runs along what must be the lower half of the composition, it reminds me of the stabilizing horizon line Graham Sutherland so often employed in his landscapes. Something more is needed now to offset this stability.
Thinking about the weight of this piece. It is a scrap that needs to be set alongside, and challenged by some entity much larger than it. Certainly, this is going to be a work made up of more than one part. Drawing to try and make sense of ideas. Thinking about how the orientation of this painting alone is currently horizontal, but the piece needs length. As much as the studio walls will permit. Maybe that’s all it needs. Verticality will be what I combine to set this piece off.
Back at the studio after a few days out. Working. Cycling. Seeing a friends show. Conversations with friends about painting and making work. It gets passionate. Some strong words are used, they stay with me. When I last left the studio I was feeling like I knew what my next move was going to be. But I’m back and not so sure anymore. The space in between has changed my mind some. It takes time for my eyes to adjust to this painting once again. I work on other things instead and weeks pass by. I’m reading The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, and planning on spending some well overdue time in Scotland.
Another conversation with a friend who visits me in the studio. I talk about my work, which I’ve been avoiding recently. Externalising helps un-knot a few things. A jolt forward and what is needed now is yellow, lemon yellow, the kind that cannot be ignored. The kind that shouts and shocks. The kind that almost doesn’t make sense alongside the palette contained within the saturated linen.
It is resolved.
The day after I see the Colour Is exhibition at Waddington Custot Gallery. There is a truly, truly wonderful Sam Gilliam piece. But it is the Etel Adnan that I can’t get away from. Modest in size, not one but two horizon lines at the base, a pale flesh tone made saccharine by the cadmium red it rests under. Above, the canvas is filled with a sharp green, from inside the green space comes a circle filled solid in a colour which is difficult to name and I realise I don’t want to place it right now, I want to leave it alone, let it keep its strangeness. The circle looms over the strange horizon, with a great weight, holding strong in position. It’s a sense of unease I’m compelled by, and the driving force is colour. There is confusion at the power this palette has over me, it shouldn’t work – the selection is mad, but it certainly does.
It charms me that this painting acts as a reminder of how I approach colour. I saw the Rauchenberg too in the end, and will again. His work has always been around in the back of my head somewhere, filtering through now and then seeking my acknowledgement, I am equally charmed by his influence.
This diary has been kept for a couple of months now, and was soundtracked by the likes of Elbow, Anderson .Paak, Peter Broderick, Agnes Obel and Radio 4.