Many people I have found do not really grasp how to make art. They think it is just magicked up by the artist from some sort of internal wellspring of inspiration. What I want to do here is to show the long and tortured path that actually describes the birth and creation of the wonderful art we see in our galleries. I hope with this revealing of the process to lay to rest forever the “A child could do it.” and other related comments. I am going to use one of my own recent works, “Untitled 124A” which was a personal breakthrough piece that has since shaped the direction of my work. Firstly my realm of concern is landscape and the light that reveals it to the eye and thence to the mind. So to start with the inspiration.
My starting point here was a local feature Hambledon Hill in Dorset which I have painted many times. It has an ancient hill fort on top which gives it a distinctive profile. Above is a photo I took while painting it. With the photo it is a straightforward image that anyone can appreciate. However I want to be able to explore how that image relates to a given flat surface and the distribution of paint marks upon that surface. To this end I set up my easel and painted a plein air. Placing as far as I could equivalent tones and hues into related positions upon the surface. At all times during the process I tried to keep aware of the place and history and my connection to it. Once the last mark was in place I stood back and considered my work. Below is a photo I took of it on the easel as soon as it was finished.
As you see there are many problems. Firstly the image looks like the place. It is, as most of you will have realised, not the place but paint placed upon a surface. Also Hambledon hill is quite large 1/2 a mile long but my painting is much smaller. Hambledon is made of chalk and earth and what grows upon it, which my simple minded representational painting could not encompass. All in all very depressing. Another weakness is that a lot of the drawing was vaguely accurate. But what does “accurate” mean in relation to an ancient hill? Accurate like a map? Accurate like a photo? There was no getting away from it I had managed to miss the essence of the place by doing the work too well. All the years of learning how to draw and paint were proving an obstacle rather than a help.
My “road to Damascus” moment came as I trudged back to the car. I tripped on a furrow and lost grip on my wet painting which landed face down on a fresh cow pat. Now thoroughly depressed I rescued it and looked at the damage. Then it struck me, The painting which had previously been merely an illusion had been transformed by the excrement. It was now truly “of” the place. An accidental intervention of the land itself (me tripping on a landscape feature) had resulted in a more complete conceptual connection to the land. Realising I now had a real work of art to deal with I put on my curator’s conservation grade white gloves to carry it reverently back to the car. Below is a photographic representation.
Once home I reconsidered the whole process that had led to the engendering of a work of art. As you see the cow shit has moderated those old fashioned irrelevant representational weaknesses bringing a down to earth truth to the materials employed. This was truly a breakthrough I could almost feel the shackles of my overly traditional thinking shattering! Here at last was truth and it was brown and rather smelly. You may think that bad, but the addition of an extra sensory level was hugely exciting. I was so overcome I had to lie down in a darkened room for a bit.
The next day I woke up determined to grasp this conceptual nettle and follow it wherever it might lead. I had started the week as a no hope landscape painter trying pointlessly to use skill and experience to capture the world around me, now I needed to leave all that behind me. Everything was up for grabs, I had to rethink the whole thing from the ground up, question everything and take nothing for granted.
Firstly why use paint when there is excrement available? It seems so obvious once it is in front of you steaming slightly. The grass grows on the land drawing sustenance from it and the air above, it is then eaten by cattle and transformed into ordure, which in turn augments the landscape.
One weakness I could see in my work of art was that I had too much influence in it’s creation, the facile obstacle of my own pernicious skill had to be overcome. The work had to be made by the place to be of it. Inspired I fixed my canvas to a pole and set off up the hill. The thing was I realised to get the excrement to be directly delivered on to the given surface. I could have laid canvasses randomly about the hill in the hope that a cow would score a direct hit but with the long pole I could perhaps make an artistic intervention with the canvas into the flow of my chosen medium.
This was the beginning of several fruitless decades. However hard I tried the cattle would detect my presence and move away. In fact as soon as they spotted me heading up the path they would leave the hill precipitously. I even tried wearing a cow suit but to no avail. Finally I was asked by the farmer to desist as the milk yields were suffering.
Then I went through the wilderness years. My creative well was dry. Suddenly one day, when working on the 87th version of my artist’s statement, the answer came to me out of the blue. I had been working with cows. The female component. But I was male, so what I needed was something that would reflect the way I related to the land via my sexuality. If I used a bull there would be a congruency with my own gender that would be hugely significant in the most significant way possible. It took nearly a year to convince the farmer and he also wanted paying more than I could have usually afforded. Luckily quite by chance after writing 500 or so letters I had just received an Arts Council grant in recognition of the fact that I had been completely unproductive for a decade or more and thus was plainly on the verge of something hugely important. They could not have been more right!
Filled with confidence and more than a little trepidation I at last placed my canvas on the ground behind a fine Hereford bull and waited. The fine beast caught my eye and there was a moment of bonding then with a gush art was fulfilled. Success at last it was all that I had dreamed of for all those years and more. Exuberant I headed home with my long sought after prize. I could not wait to tell my Gallery the good news.
Then disaster struck. When carrying my art into the studio one of my conservator’s grade curator’s gloves slipped and in trying to save my masterpiece I tripped and fell forward onto my precious work. All was lost, I had inadvertently intervened with my face and chest and the purity of the work was destroyed.
It is just at the lowest ebb of misery and despair that inspiration strikes the true artist. As I lay in the bath washing away the ruins of my masterpiece all of the years of searching, the agonies of self doubt suddenly came together. It was blindingly simple. I had been trying to express an idea by using “stuff” which was plainly inadequate. We express ideas in words, why couldn’t I express my idea that way? At last I had reached the very peak of Mount Parnassus. After drying myself I lifted the phone and spoke to my local printer. Just like that the deed was done. Anyone could do this of course, but only I had trodden that rocky and gruelling creative road that leads to the creation of a seminal piece of art. Below is the final work, “Untitled 124A” I have had hints that the Turner Prize committee is hugely excited and I am expecting a call from Charles Saatchi, but I will leave the art to speak for itself via the link below.