Straight lines


170225b Freckles (2017) oil on canvas 30 x 13cm

This was an exercise to practice painting straight lines free-handed. Sometimes I think I should do something like this every day, like an hours “technique” practice to develop my brushwork. I was thinking of Richard Aldrich when I added the schematic facial features.


New material: 205 x 120cm board

Sometimes I pin my canvases onto a board to mount on an easel. Today I bought a larger board that allows me to make paintings more than twice the size of anything I’ve done before. Even when I’m making smaller paintings, pinning the canvas to the board might be useful because it’s more like seeing the painting on a wall, giving a better sense of scale.

For example, in the past I’d have made a small painting like this (below) by laying it flat on the table and sitting with my eyes about 35cm from the canvas, like reading a book.


170225a Face (2017) oil on canvas 16.5 x 11.5cm

With the canvas pinned to the board I can stand back to view it, and the expanse of the board makes the painting appear smaller (below), giving me a much better idea of how the painting might look on the wall of a gallery, or in someone’s home.


16.5 x 11.5cm painting on the 205 x 120cm board

Another example: the painting I made yesterday is the largest I’ve made to date. Here it is on the new board, showing how much larger I can go in future.


57.7 x 104cm painting on the 120 x 205cm board

Scale and sculptural ideas


170224 Pinocchio with Still Life (2017) oil on canvas 57.5 x 104cm

This is the second painting I’ve made using the new large easel. I pin the unstretched canvas onto a board and mount that on the easel. This is currently the largest size board I have, but I’ll be getting a larger one soon. For fun, I used Photoshop to mock up a picture of how the first two “new easel” paintings would look in a gallery. The dimensions are not accurate (the real paintings are smaller, unfortunately), but it gives a rough impression.


L-R: 170224 Pinocchio with Still Life (2017); 170222 Pinocchio with Dandelion (2017)

In the past when I tried to paint larger scale I’d plan the picture, sometimes working from a prepared image using the projector. Now I’m trying to improvise large paintings, the same way I improvise smaller ones. I start painting without a plan and make it up as I go along, making spontaneous decisions about content, composition, the angle of light, the space, etc. I prefer this way of working.


170224 Pinocchio with Still Life (2017), in process

Looking at the result, I can see I’m still adjusting to the larger scale. It’s full of objects that would each individually fit comfortably into the kind of smaller paintings I’ve been making recently.


[detail] 170224 Pinocchio with Still Life (2017) oil on canvas

This painting reminds me of Edward Gorey, although I wasn’t thinking about him while making it. I see the influence of Dana Schutz, M C Escher, and a little bit of Picasso, but something else is coming through. The candles and tumblers strike me as a sculptural idea, like C20th surrealist or post-ready-made type of thing, reminiscent of works by Mona Hatoum or Robert Gober (below). Likewise, the Pinocchio figure I painted a couple of days ago, with an axe between his legs, could easily be made as a sculpture and retain all the same associations (castration, his erection substituted with a weapon, the sexual slang terms “chopper” and “axe wound”, etc.). It’s an object idea rather than an image idea. It even came from a sculpture I made ten years ago, long before I started painting. Perhaps this sculptural way of imagining will prove to be something I can use in my painting more in future.


Robert Gober Untitled (1991) wax, cloth, wood, leather and human hair 31.3 × 26 × 95.3cm


Robert Gober Untitled (1999) plaster, beeswax, human hair, cotton, leather, aluminium pull tabs, and enamel paint 85 x 101.6 x 62.9cm


Robert Gober Untitled (2003-2005) mixed media, size variable

Jannis Kounellis: Gray is the Color of Our Time


Jannis Kounellis [no title] (1999) etching, drypoint and aquatint on paper 35.5 x 38.7cm

Painting in black and white gives me plenty of opportunity to think about grey. High contrast black and white can easily create a dynamic effect, but I find painting with grey more difficult. The surface of a canvas painted grey tends to look like concrete, making a flatter impression than colour, and drawing attention to surface irregularities (ie. impasto). Sometimes it strikes me as very ugly, making me miss colour. Other times I resolve to embrace grey, as artists like Jannis Kounellis have done.

Here’s Kounellis in a video from 2015, talking about grey in his own work and others’. I find the video title evocative of the greys in the built environment we’ve created, indoors and out: concrete, steel, frosted glass, slate, etc.

Kounellis cites the transition from the “atmosphere” of Impressionism (usually colourful) to the “classicism” and “interiority” of Cubism (often muted or almost monochromatic greys and browns, eg. Picasso’s Female Nude 1910, below). He says, “We are the children of this transformation”.


Pablo Picasso Female Nude (1910) oil on canvas 101.3 x 77.5cm

New material: Studio easel


Stirling H Easel

Until now, I’ve painted using a small easel that can take canvases up to about 50cm tall. Anything larger had to painted flat on a table, or on a board precariously fixed to the table. It was very awkward, difficult to get a proper view of the painting, light reflecting up off the paint, etc. Often I painted small paintings, because it was more comfortable and easier to see what I was doing (like the two below). Then afterwards I’d wonder what they would be like if they were larger.


170219 Rain Cloud Thought Bubble (2017) oil on canvas 16.5 x 22cm


170220 Artefacts (2017) oil on canvas 23 x 20cm

Recently, for the first time, I sold some of my paintings. Now I’ve used part of the money to buy a studio easel, large enough to hold canvases up to 215cm tall. It makes a huge difference! This is the first painting I’ve made on it (below). Improvising (or I like to call it “doodling”) on a larger scale is different too, but I’m looking forward to doing it more.


170222 Pinocchio with Dandelion (2017) oil on canvas 77 x 61cm

The axe/penis idea comes from a sculpture I made in 2006, called Bedroom Door (below). Back then a lot of my work hinted at violent or traumatic sexual themes, influenced, I think, by Francis Bacon, TV dramas by Dennis Potter, and films including Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Waters’ Multiple Maniacs (1970), Roeg’s Don’t Look Now! (1973), Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986). Now I’m less comfortable working with those themes. I can still get back into inventing in that register, but the results give me a feeling of futility or sadness, or I feel embarrassed by them and doubtful about their value – Why create something unpleasant?


Bedroom Door (2006) false door, axe

I think that’s a result of my own personal development, but also to changing times. In the 90s, I was also interested in a lot of contemporary art that touched on the “abject”, including Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Gregor Schneider, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, and Damien Hirst. Hal Fosters’ latest book Bad New Days, includes an essay titled Abject that describes that tendency in the art of the 1980s and 90s. I found it an interesting reminder that nominally “shocking” content was, for a while, commonplace, and became so frequent and familiar that I experienced it almost as an uncomplicated ritualised entertainment.

The “abject” or “shock” tendency in art of that time is also covered in the second episode of Matthew Collings’ 1999 TV series This is Modern Art. The episode, titled Shock! Horror! (below), includes work by many of the same names (in order of appearance): Paul McCarthy, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Piero Manzoni, Damien Hirst, Francisco Goya, Sarah Lucas, Marcus Harvey, Sam Taylor Wood, Tracey Emin, Edvard Munch, Diego Velazquez, Francis Bacon, Gilbert and George, and Vito Acconci.

Tomoo Gokita

Phillips auctioneers have a contemporary art auction on Feb 28th and the art is listed online. A lot of the artists are unfamiliar to me. These gouache paintings by Tomoo Gokita caught my eye because he’s doing things with black and white paint that are similar to some of my experiments.


Tomoo Gokita Desire Develops an Edge (2006) gouache on paper41 x 32.1cm


Tomoo Gokita Bye, Bye, baby (2006) gouache on paper 41 x 32.1cm

I liked these paintings enough to be interested in seeing more, so I did a search of Gokita’s work. He also makes large acrylic paintings, using a similar range of brush strokes, all black and white. Unfortunately, the more I saw of his large paintings, the more disappointed I became.


Tomoo Gokita Night and Day (2009) acrylic on linen 162.5 x 162.5cm

Gokita blends black and white into his brush strokes to create high-contrast gradients which he uses in a variety of ways, sometimes abstract, sometimes to model form, and sometimes to render light effects derived from photographs (very similar technique also found in paintings by Wilhelm Sasnal and Marcin Maciejowski). Most of Gokita’s pictures evoke and combine two forms of early-to-mid twentieth century imagery: black and white photography and abstract painting. I’m just not sure what the point is, other than a kind of commercial nostalgia-chic.

In particular, he frequently paints (photo derived) figures with the faces obscured or disrupted by patches of abstraction. For me, that’s a totally exhausted trope, done to death in recent painting (incl. Ghenie), drawing from the well of Cubism, Francis Bacon, John Stezaker, and George Condo, but coming up with nothing new. I even see something nihilistic in all these recent portraits disfigured and depersonalised, as if the painters are compelled to paint pictures of people but, anxious about that being an old-fashioned practice, they make it “contemporary” by abstracting the face, creating a kind of quick-and-easy alienation effect at the same time as demonstrating Look! I can do photorealism, figuration AND abstraction! in a way that feels, to me, like playing to the gallery. I’ve made a couple of paintings that stray into this territory, and it amazes me how much people respond to them, but unfortunately I can’t share their enjoyment so  I take a different path.

I try not to criticise other painters on this blog, but in this case it feels relevant to my painting (also his career is going fine, so I’m sure it won’t worry him). Gokita and I are working with almost exactly the same materials in the same format. There are huge overlaps in the way we’re making pictures. He’s been painting for much longer, so it’s instructive for me to see how he uses techniques that I’ve only begun to develop. But more than that, I have an intense feeling that his work shows me what I don’t want to do in my own.

To put it more positively, the technical similarity between our work focuses me on what the differences are – what is it that I feel is absent in Gokita’s paintings but that I want to be present in mine? It reminds me of other kinds of art that don’t happen to use black and white paint, but that I really enjoy, and the influence of which hasn’t, yet, found its way into my painting. This includes: the comedy/performance of Frankie Boyle, Sarah Silverman, Seth McFarlane, John Waters, Barry Humphries, David Hoyle, and Paul Soileau; the cinema of Michael Haneke, David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charles Laughton; the theoretical writing of Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, and Mike Kelley; and the music/performances of my 90’s youth, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Bjork, Nick Cave, Madonna, Tom Waits. etc etc. I don’t know what exactly I’d like to draw from any of these, but obviously it won’t be their painting style, and that alone helps me to stop fixating on material technical production and opens my mind to all the other things that make an art work what it is.

Arm, wrist, fingers


170218a Pinocchio in Landfill (2017) oil on canvas

Doodling, thinking about gesture and practicing the movement of my arm, wrist and fingers when I’m making brush strokes. Thinking about Dana Schutz (the straight lines in the almost-100%-abstract “landfill”, above) and Raymond Pettibon (the curved outlines in the Happy Vegetable picture, below).


170218c Happy Vegetable in Rain with Manure (2017) oil on canvas

Robert Longo b&w Ab Ex


Robert Longo After Dekooning (Woman and Bicycle, 1952 – 53) (2013-2014) charcoal on mounted paper 229 x 147cm

Now that I’m back to painting in black and white, I’m thinking a lot about what kind of painting approaches are effective without colour. I don’t like the idea of making paintings that look like they could be better in colour, like black and white reproductions in old art books.

So I was interested to find this Robert Longo exhibition from 2014. They’re painstaking charcoal drawings of Abstract Expressionist paintings. It’s a conceptual appropriation project as much as an aesthetic one, but the first thing I thought when I glanced at these installation photos was – yes, painterly paintings without colour can totally work.


[installation view] Robert Longo Gang of Cosmos at Metro Pictures 2014


Robert Longo After Mitchell (Ladybug, 1957) 2013 charcoal on mounted paper 175 x 244cm


[installation view] Robert Longo Gang of Cosmos at Metro Pictures 2014

Here’s Longo talking about the exhibition, and the process of translating the coloured paintings into black and white. He says:

“The translation into black and white was a really big aspect to deal with. I think that’s incredibly abstract to begin with.”

I’ve never thought of the removal of colour from an image as a process of abstraction, but of course it’s true.

Possibly with this in mind, I painted this today. I don’t like the picture much, but I like the paint.


170218b Car Accident (2017) oil on canvas

B&W paintings from 2016


1609 Bouguereau Ladies (2016) oil on paper 38 x 48cm

Now that I’m painting in black and white again, it’s making me think about the black and white paintings I made last year when I first started painting. For the first nine months I used only black and white. Here are some of the paintings from that time.


1601n Legs Balls (2016) oil on paper


1602d Rock Pool (2016) oil on paper


1602jj (2016) oil on paper


1602jjj Heels Hand (2016) oil on paper


1602w Reclining Female Nude (2016) oil on paper


1603u Nude Female Torso Trans (2016) oil on paper


1605oo Woman Legs (2016) oil on paper


160727b (2016) oil on paper

Specific objects


170217a Grey Scale (2017) oil on canvas 26.5 x 29cm

Still getting back into black and white. Without colour, I’m very conscious of light and texture. Often I’m tempted to paint random forms, just to practice painting light and surface (ie. above), but today I painted specific objects, because that puts the paint handling in context and forces me to think more about texture and composition, and edges toward subject matter.


170217b Bird (2017) oil on canvas 28 x 21cm


170217c Ring and Arrow (2017) oil on canvas 31.5 x 29cm


170217d Pinocchio Head (2017) oil on canvas 44 x 31cm