Practice based research: capturing presence II
Notes on Presence II series
Presence II is the second round of investigating the ‘deliberative’ mark and the production of ‘presence’ in painting. ‘Deliberative’ markmaking seeks to create work without figurative or aesthetic intent; the aim being to investigate whether it is possible to paint in this way and, if so, to see what the content of the resulting work is.
As an aside, it is worth noting the support media used - canvas boards (59 cm by 84 cm). They provide an adequate surface, take up less room for storage and are easier to transport. Perhaps board also provide a degree of informality and therefore freedom that canvases might not allow.
My experience of making each of the four paintings is outlines below, followed by concluding resmarks.
Presence II (a) pipes: having laid down a few layers of underpainting, forms seemed to suggest themselves. I outlined these in black, with shading in parts to emphasise their three-dimensionality; and used a thin yellow ochre glaze to push back less well defined elements. I questioned the use of black outlines - reality does not have black outlines, and it seemed an amateurs trick. Coincidently, I had seen a Cezanne exhibition, and he is not averse to using this technique, so I deployed it.
Is there any sense of meaning in this painting? It has the feel of something ruined - perhaps broken up and left. It reminds me of Paul Nash’s Totes Meer – a sense of something once functional, even powerful, now simply scrap. If I put my hands into the frame, I could hold the composition gently for a second or two, but then it would disintegrate – the last remnant of something destroyed.
Presence II (b) trees: the layers of deliberative mark making resulted in a painting that had little coherence or structure – a mass of angry crimson marks on a blue background. Attempts at developing the painting incrementally failed. I attempted to provide coherence by a covering of light glaze, but to no effect. It was clear that a different approach was required.
During a walk in the woods a few weeks earlier, I had become fascinated by the play of bright winter sun on bare tree branches – the sharp contrast between the brightly lit upper halves of the branches and the very dark lower halves, especially when the branches displayed different aspects of this depending on orientation (in relation to the suns position horizontally and vertically, through 380 degrees). I had a sense that I could use this image to work with the painting – creating two separate elements, unified by the picture plane.
Did this step break the policy of no figurative elements in a deliberative painting? I don’t know how to respond to this, other than I was more interested in ‘playing’ with the paint, using this for as a sort of scaffolding. I was particularly taken by the way the paint created effects, notably in the mid bottom left where the ‘branch’ splits into three where the paint created the shadow effect on the lower branch.
Looking at the painting now, perhaps the ‘branches’ are masking what is behind, both in a compositional sense (providing coherence where there is none) and in a psychological sense.
Presence II (c): another example where the initial underpainting presented significant problems (I call these my problem children). In this case the surface presented no particular reference point or useable forms. This was compounded when, in a moment of inspiration, I made several uneven marks diagonally across the canvas – having done this, I felt compelled to make the best use of them I could and continued to develop them, in true deliberative style, reversing the norm of light colour on top and darker below. On the one hand, I was filled with a sense of righteousness for following the true path, and on the other I was painfully aware of painting myself into a cul-de-sac.
On a more positive note, I was engaged by the fact that the light green and yellow tones contrasted with the dark of the forms across the surface, suggesting a great depth of field, perhaps a tactic to be deployed in a future painting.
Presence II (c): the underpainting provided plenty of scope for developing this painting in true deliberative style; unified with yellow and green glazes, the orange markings provided energy and movement. I could develop the painting with grey semi-circular motifs (inspired by horseshoe marks in mud) and the application or MIR grey (inspired by the failure to unify in II (b)). The white gauze effect was derived from Rembrandt – I wondered how to produce such a translucent effect so tried it here, with a bolder edge and greater ‘colour’ where the material would fold (too figurative?).
One element that caused some viewers concern was the ‘palm like’ fronds in the top left, which were seen as too obviously made by natural hand movements. It is a motif I have used before, so may perseveres with it.
I presented the four paintings in a crit to my artist’s collective. Firstly, I was intrigued by the ability of informed viewers to deliberately non-aesthetic and non-figurative work, and to generate a response. Themes were picked up that ran across the four painting – a sense of calm and chaos; the use of natural forms, a sense of something displayed and something hidden.
This series showed the development of a more sophisticated level of work that was interpreted by viewers as having meaning, hinting at things hidden and representing a naturalistic expression of ideas. The deliberative approach has been largely maintained, although figurative elements have emerged, and it has provided a sense of challenge and tested the ability to paint without a given result. There is a sense that progress is being made, but it is inevitably work in hand – some steps on a longer journey.