Why is is that as soon as we seek the definite we end up mired in the indefinite? I have been discussing “What is Art” recently with others, and having had to think about it I now know less than when I started. Before I asked the question at least I had a vague idea of what I was up to but rather less so now! Why on earth am I bothering to do this activity called painting?
Having given it a great deal of thought, I have the beginnings of an idea. It is popular for artists to say, “I have to paint it is a need deep within me.” Is it? Well wanting my dinner and having regular bowel movements are needs deep within me that I cannot deny, so is the next breath I take. Painting however is not in that league. If I had a choice of giving up speaking or painting the painting would have to go, so it is plainly not the most important means of communication to me. It is good for my ego to be good at something is perhaps the best that can be said. If I destroyed all my years of work and took up some other trade, would I pine and be miserable. Almost certainly not. If a thug threatened to harm a friend if I did not burn all my work I would torch the lot without a second thought.
So I have to conclude that all the saying of how important “art” is to them done by artists is merely posturing to add a rose tint to how they and others see themselves. If I am to pare things down as much as I can I would I think say that I paint because it brings me pleasure to do, and pleasure when others enjoy the results. I am a little addicted to it, but not so much that I could not go off and pursue other interests with at least as much pleasure.
Does this devalue what I do? I am not what you might call a dilettante, I work hard and quite devotedly to the highest standards I am able. I enjoy it for the most part and get a “kick” out of the small successes it brings. If the work was torn from my breast in a fervent of anguish and torment, would it be better and more worthy? Current opinion would tend to say yes. Is it a crime so say I do it merely because it is a pleasant and engaging way of spending a brief life? Oh how fortunate I think I am to spend this one existence in this relatively pleasant manner! (especially when looking at some of the alternatives!)
How did all this come about? As John Byrne of the Talking Heads asks, “How did I get here?” Did I have a plan? Well, from about 20, sort of. I was going to be an illustrator, because I liked looking at the artwork done by others. I think I am here doing what I do partly because of 1970’s science fiction book covers and comic books , and partly because of the passing thought, “I would like to be able to do this.” Maybe the thought had an element of, “How hard can it be?” After some practical investigation the answer was, “Very hard indeed.” It did not matter in the least to me that such work was scorned as “pulp” it did something to me when I looked at it that I liked. I have been digging up some of the images that spurred me on. Alas no Rembrandts, no Monets, I had seen these and enjoyed them but they didn’t bring the feeling, “I might be able to do that.” I do in an odd way wish my early inspirations had more gravitas, but there you go. I’ll start with the earliest that took my eye in such a way that I attempted to emulate. All images are the copyright of their individual owners.
The first sort of artwork I tried to emulate was derived from Marvel comics. This is Galactus the Silver Surfer’s nemesis.
It is drawn by Jack Kirby. I didn’t copy I was never a direct copier but I tried to do my own versions. I think it was this that
hooked me as it showed how damned difficult it was. My attempts were pathetic and even at that age (13 or so) I couldn’t
fool myself that they were remotely as good. I didn’t give up though I covered reams of paper with badly drawn muscle bound
figures in uncomfortable clothing that would be bound to chafe.
Another and disparate thread was pen drawing, which was the bulk of my initial output. This is Sydney R Jones. I don’t know
where I got the book from but I had it from early on. One of my Father’s maybe. This was another thing I attempted to emulate.
I had more success here, I didn’t reach Mr Jones’ quality but after a lot of work I could draw a building in reasonable style though not
with the delicate touch of the above.
Here is a book jacket by Chris Foss. I spent hours pouring over similar images but it was Chris Foss that inspired me. I didn’t immediately try to copy
the style, I was 15 and had no idea of how to begin such a task. It was not until 6 years later I had an airbrush and could attempt such a thing. I still
remember the moment my Father gave me the compressor and Badger airbrush for Christmas. I can also remember the sinking feeling when I tried it
out and found how very difficult it was to use well. I never was a giver upper though, soon I was deep into Frisk film and Dr Martin’s dyes. Despite all
this effort and hours and hours of getting the skill with the tools I just could not produce anything as fine as the painting above. The attempt had however
introduced me to Gouache and there were other artists who’s work I admired.
I much admired Bruce Pennington’s work. Later artists like Roger Dean would use the same mushroom shapes and organic textures but Bruce was the first.
The paintings are very simply constructed in layers. You could build a theatre set from them easily. I set too once more but Mr Pennington was no more in my reach
than any of the others! I don’t seem to have been very cast down by this state of affairs. I was always confident that one day I would be able to do as well.
This is by Alan Lee. In 1978 Fairies was published. Alan Lee and Brian Froud were the illustrators. Brian Froud was OK
but it was Alan Lee that blew me away. I think it was that moment I realised what true draughtsmanship was and how
very far I had to go before I could do anything comparable. I was 24.
It was not long after I met David Larkin who had edited the book and he after showing me Alan’s originals had pointed me to
some of Alan’s inspirations. So it was I sought out books with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I was swept away by the subtle
atmosphere of paintings such as the above. Arthur Rackham was another who astonished me.
At the same time I was admiring Frank Frazetta. I tried in this period to produce similar work. It was still not
in the same league, but with each attempt I got a little nearer. This gives me a small clue as to why I expended
all this effort. Not aspirations of high art, not upwellings of inner expression. It was the lure of a challenge.
This is Fred Schrier. I was still mad about comics but had moved on to the underground variety.
I produced a fair few pages in this idiom but none as good as Fred’s. It is a strange thing learning a skill.
It changes you, you have to look at images like the above and pick them apart. How does the hatching work,
the different weights of line. You may well think the above is a bit of daft ephemera, but believe you me
just trying to produce a similar object will convince you differently.
So there they are some of the lights that guided me to my present location. There are others and later more respectable ones like Tom Girtin and Titian. Slowly all these disparate elements congealed into a middle aged bloke who paints bits of London. There is a connection however, and that is the skills involved. The skills of physical dexterity and also the skills of composition. The ability to focus and stand back from your own work. Learning each of these things leaves you changed, gives you a purpose. As a bi-product it makes you valuable to others. To my great fortune the world is not awash with people who have learnt what I have. I have achieved various ambitions, only to find they were better as hopes than they were as actualities. I became a comicstrip drawer, a book illustrator, 3d designer in turn and found Shangri-La in none of them. I have no reason to think that landscape painting will either, but there is a difference, I don’t expect this final phase to satisfy any ambition. I got a picture in the ROI which was nice but the feeling in no way matched painting a watercolour that pleased me last week, or indeed someone contacting me to buy a picture because it reminded them of a happy childhood in a place far from where they are now. I am I feel getting quite close to the place I have been heading all along. A place where a moment of sun or the passing of a person engrossed in their day lifts the heart. So simple, it doesn’t need defining, or explaining. There is no agenda for change or disquiet with the status quo. It doesn’t need certainty indeed uncertainty is vital. In a word… “joy”.