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  • Terry Channell

Presence III and the deliberative approach to painting

The third series of Presence paintings take us further into the ‘deliberative painting’ approach, exposing us to further questions about the practice of painting; some of which relate to basic questions (portrait vs landscape) whereas others shine a light on the act of painting and the internal processes behind that act. I discuss these questions below and draw some conclusions about the deliberative approach to painting.

The deliberative painting style depends on a dialogue between paint and painter, with no pre-meditated design, or figurative or aesthetic intent. In this third series, I am refining this approach to a considerable degree. For example, deliberative painting requires extended viewing of the paintings as they emerge, and I now find I am becoming very sensitive about the way this is done – the painting has to be at the right distance and angle with the best light for revealing the variations in tone and texture of the work. Once this is established, I look, think and feel in an absent-minded way. For example. after establishing the basic form of ‘Belgrade’, my mind wandered until Lemon Yellow passed through; a regular on my palette and used frequently in underpainting or as a background colour. I felt it was too brash; perhaps Cadmium Yellow (often characterised by me as the dull relative), still too much; perhaps just paint the lower half of the canvas, no looks like a horizon line. Suddenly, in my mind, the whole background appeared as a cadmium yellow – a well of emotion sprang up and I knew this was the way to go. I find that my emotional response to an emerging painting is my guide (aesthetics and learning is the nagging part of my brain, that points to my lack of learning or academic ability, but occasionally shouts loud enough to stop me making a catastrophic error).

Presence III (Belgrade)

To what extent does this process, just described, meet the requirements of deliberative painting? In Agamemnon, having decided on a partially blue background, fading to white, I had to choose the proportion of the canvas it would occupy – too much and it would dominate, less and it would play a supportive role. I ask, what is my mood? What is the paintings mood? I know that blending a colour from stronger to weaker hue suggests distance, but in the final composition this is simply one of three elements that all compete. The choice of the energetic glazed red element was a callback to my earlier work – perhaps a motif – selected as I felt that the sister works were too placid, and that this ‘motif’ was a real element of my being, and needs to be taken on the journey (perhaps evolving into something more integrated). The choice of a figure was taken from a forgotten painting at a Tate exhibition, and it reminded me of both the sketchy paintings I’d seen there and at the Mall galleries and of a Jeffers poem I’d been reading (The Tower Beyond Tragedy – describing the tragedy of Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon). Random elements come to the surface, and selected, modified or discarded during the creative process. These decisions are intuitive, but surely not random. I was reminded of Patricia Cane’s book on Drawing: The Enactive Evolution of the Practitioner, and her descriptions of the decision process; I found this a little too definite for my purposes, but it helped me reflect further on my approach. I feel that the immediate decisions are about paint, instinct, response; but underlying this is a sense of a deep well of sub-conscious ideas, memories, motifs, feelings and fears that emerge during the creative process. I will touch on this again later.

Presence III (Greek)

Red was derived from my earlier use of Alizarin as thin glaze, the ‘veil’ from an earlier work of mine, the sap green from a liking for its properties. The application of the sap green is a case in point – I was not sure how this would look: I know that green and red can be attractive. My initial application was very thinned, but I was attracted to the fact that it showed the edges and brushmarks, and yet allowed some background to come through. When it dried, the colour became a rather ugly deep green brown, which undermined any aesthetic considerations (unless it is cast as a deliberate anti-aesthetic decision, which seems to miss the point - I felt that this expressed something of the feeling I wanted in the painting: this reminds me of a comment by the actor Timothy Spall, that good drama (or, for me, painting) is about the atmosphere you can create, rather than the story it tells).

Presence III (Red)

I have probably defined the process of Red more than I was conscious of at the time; each step seemed like a jump into something unknown. Occasionally, something unpredictable happens. When painting the black bar in Belgrade, and then pulling it back by removing paint with a brush, a voice in my head said – ‘this is Belgrade’. I had no idea why I had painted this bar, or why it was Belgrade (I had visited Belgrade a month previously) but I took it as a truth. This was reminiscent of other experiences I have had when painting (see Heidegger Moments); and I believe the meaning of Belgrade will be revealed at some point.

In conclusion, I want to reflect on the ‘deliberative’ style of painting and its value to me as a painter. The three Presence series show that it is possible to make work in this way, without a defined subject, aesthetic or figurative intent. The work has been subject to critical analysis by others, and suggests and suggests a development of creative quality and sophistication.

The process of painting in this way has raised challenges. Firstly, is it possible to avoid figuration. Certainly, figurative elements have been applied (tree like forms in Presence II () for example). In the main, figuration has not played a part, and on the occasions it is invoked, it is as a product of the deliberative style, introduced some way into the process to solve a problem, rather than as an initial intention. With more experience, it may be that figuration could be avoided altogether – the problems figuration could address are, instead, dealt with in deliberative style. Equally, the use of figurative elements within a deliberative process, if done in a way that is driven by that process without becoming the totality of the work, may be an acceptable compromise.

The second, and perhaps more profound, challenge to the deliberative style is the avoidance of aesthetics as an object of the work. This is significant as the deliberative style seeks to avoid the ‘enframement’ of the work by aesthetics – i.e. avoid approaching paintings with a pre-defined set of aesthetic assumptions that are then imposed on the work. Rather, it seeks to create an environment where we drop pre-conceptions, and are open enough to let the work ‘come to us’ in its essential form, a form that does not have aesthetic concerns. These ideas are derived from my reading of Heidegger (see ‘The origin of the work of art’ Haynes 2002; and my interpretation here, pages 9 and 16).

So, have these three series avoided aesthetics in their making or in the way that they are viewed? With regard to the painting process, like any artist I have developed my palette based partly on what meets my needs and partly on chance (ie what was to hand). I would argue that the selection of palette and choice at the moment of applying paint, is not driven by aesthetics but by my creative processes. I have been taught colour theory, the golden mean, the sublime and so forth; but I do not consciously set out to use them. At a general level, I am a poor student, and don’t remember much of what I am formally taught. I believe in my interpretation of Anton Ehrenzweig’s ideas, where I take in information and it goes into a vast ocean of sub-consciousness, alongside my life experiences, fears and feelings, to reappear alongside other, unrelated thoughts, at any time. When I paint, I don’t consciously think that this colour is the counterpoint to that, or this is a classic compositional technique. There are times when I am aware of aesthetics, but even then I apply this awareness randomly.

How these works are viewed is interesting. As I have noted previously, many (most?) artists, by their very nature, approach their work with an aesthetic eye; and naturally they apply it to the work that they view. The idea of a concept being the primary concern of the deliberative painter does not always have common currency. For example, the Belgrade and Red paintings attracted attention and positive comment, with comments on composition, colour and so forth. The Greek painting was set aside, and not necessarily seen as part of this series; it seemed problematic - the figure seems to recede whilst the red background comes forward, causing conflict between the three main elements of the work.

I accept that Belgrade and Red are more aesthetically pleasing than Greek, and they will be seen this way. So, have I now conceded to aesthetics in this latest series. Clearly, I selected the composition, colours etc., but the choice was driven by incident – I had seen a Sickert painting (Nuit d’Ete, 1906) and was struck by its composition, and I had been discussing forms of underpainting (cool blues, warm pinks), and these two came together at the moment of painting. Perhaps I am being disingenuous, and am applying aesthetic concerns in my work, even though it is not my intent.

Ultimately, I adopted the deliberative style in order to develop my experimental painting practice (sitting alongside my more figurative work). My work has progressed through the three Presence series, and I feel that now, having gone through a lot of struggle and hard work, I will continue painting in this way. I have one further idea I wish to explore – is it necessary to have a subject when painting (figurative, abstract etc.) or can the subject be a product of the process?

PS – I wanted to retain the following, but not in a way that would disrupt the line of thought regarding deliberative painting, so have added them as a post-script.

I had intended, as usual in the Presence series, to make four paintings; one of which was a break from my routine of layering paint until a resolved painting emerged. In this case, I wanted to represent an image that had flashed through my mind one evening, which included a line drawing of a triangle and of a woman’s face. Narrow lines, straight with sharp edges, is a subject of fear that hovers in the back of my mind: I know one day I will have to face this task for real (previous attempts involving masking tape have failed miserably as the paint bleeds under the tape). I was saved by my inability to find an image with the right expression of a woman’s face, and abandoned or postponed this painting.

This led me to thinking about the image of the woman and triangle. The image exists because I thought it, presumably; but where? Did the image not exist before I ‘thought’ it, and now I have visualised it is it part of ‘the world’? I’m thinking here of my understanding of poiesis, where the act of creating is a bringing forth or unconcealing, which implies that the creator isn’t making something new but revealing what already existed (as in the idea that the sculpture exists in the marble, and the sculptor reveals it). If this is a correct understanding of creation, then is the woman/triangle somehow suspended in this process – it exists but is not fully realised yet; a form of suspended animation? This raises many other questions. I had thought in terms of the ‘object’ being in a concealed state, then in a revealed state. But clearly there are many stages along the way, and there will be many imagined and unresolved pieces of work (such as the Greek Colossus of Dionysus, that never made it out of the quarry in Naxos). I now have the image, and the prepared board on which it was to be painted. The board now becomes a potent symbol of what might be or have been, and at a personal level this resonates with pregnant meaning.

At a more basic level, portrait or landscape. I find portrait an introverted, pressurised format that can generate tension and pressure in the work. Landscape invites a more expressive, open and atmospheric mode of painting. At the beginning of this series, I feel the need for the intensity of portrait, although the creative process has a habit of morphing objects and subjects into something else.

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