“Semiabstraction is not a style; it is a viewpoint toward nature that results in paintings which integrate identifiable subject matter and formal design structure. This integration establishes an independent equilibrium between nature and design in which neither dominates the other.
“… Look for shapes that have a certain energy or vitality to them … If a shape is unclear or uninteresting, redesign it, improve on it. Make a painting that appeals purely on the level of shape and pattern relationships.”
Edward Betts, “Creative Landscape Painting”, page 84
A painting is a conglomerate of shapes. As the artist, it’s up to us to decide what to include and to leave out, how to represent them, what to dictate and what to suggest. That’s why impressionist, expressionist, semi-abstract art is ultimately the more interesting artistic playground for me.
… the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is less about “Did it really happen or was it made up?” than it is about form. And, more than form, it’s about the expectations that are brought to certain forms. According to how a book is presented, packaged, or identified, readers have certain expectations. Following from that they expect books within broadly identified categories to behave in certain ways. So people can find it quite disconcerting when a book isn’t doing what they think it’s meant to be doing, even if the book is completely fine on its own terms and has no desire to conform to some external set of expectations.
Substitute “drawing” for “fiction”, “painting” for “nonfiction”, and “art” for “book”.
Saying a drawing or painting is ‘good’ because ‘it looks like a photograph’ is more a statement about the viewer than the artwork, about the limited exploration someone has had with the possibilities of art beyond representational.
It can be interesting debating whether pastel is a drawing or a painting medium, when ink shifts from a drawing to a painting, how much paint can be added to a mixed medium piece before it stops being a drawing, but ultimately it’s a technicality that’s irrelevant to whether an artwork speaks to you or not.
It’s all too easy to say you hate a painting and throw your brushes down in frustration and anger. If this is always your reaction, you’re developing your ability at being angry not your painting skills.
You’re lying to yourself if you say you hate everything about it, because then you would never have started painting it in the first place. We don’t hate the first brushstroke, nor the second; what we hate is that at some point things went awry, that we didn’t fulfil what we promised ourselves when we started. If you truly hated every brushstroke, then give your paints away and do something else with your time.
Find the “I liked until I did X” and “I never did Y” moment(s), think about what you might have done instead, and have another go.
Sometimes it might be a while before I try again, as with the viaduct at Cullen below, from 2019 and 2023.
Curiosity can be a means to an end. But couldn’t it also be … the end? A reward in itself?
As an analogy, the slow food movement was a reaction to the use of food as a “means”—the widespread habit of quick-serve, on-the-go, calories-down-the-gullet-style cooking and eating. But—as food gurus taught us—when we slow things down, a source of stress could become a source of enjoyment.
Once upon a time I was at a workshop at the London V&A where we did an activity in fast and slow looking. Fast looking was walking through a room quickly and then making a note of three things that caught your eye, repeating several times. (If you’ve been to the V&A London you’ll know it’s a warren of connected spaces.)
Slow looking was sitting in front of an object for a while, drawing and making notes. I can’t remember if it were 15 or 30 minutes but it felt like forever. Not least because there were all those other things to see. It’s impossible to look at even a fraction of what’s on display in the museum before your brain is overloaded, but there’s the compulsion to keep going because it’s there, waiting.
I learnt that I can keep myself actively looking at the one thing, the more I notice, the more curious I become about whatever it is. I also learnt it’s easier if I first use up some restlessness and impatience through fast looking and/or drawing. Also at familiar locations where I start to notice things between those I recognise.
“We all share a common misconception: that ideas pop into mind fully formed by themselves, fresh, new, and creative …
“Ideas are not new, as thoughts are not new. They come from the thoughts that came before them. We don’t really start thinking, we simply join the thinking that’s already going on. In other words, we jump onto the train of thought. Thoughts come from thoughts. …
“Finding the one you want to express is more about you than the idea.”
Procrastination can happen because we believe we don’t have any ideas to paint, we’re waiting for an idea we judge to be the perfect, or we can’t choose between all our ideas.
If it’s the first: reuse a previous idea. There isn’t a rule stipulating that ideas may be used once only. Imagine if Monet had decided to stop at one lilypond painting. And did you know Munch did more than one version of “The Scream“?
If it’s the second: go with the last idea you rejected. Give up on perfect and see where a less-than-perfect idea takes you. Would you do a perfect painting from a perfect idea first time anyway?
If it’s the third: put several in a hat and pick one. They’re all equally valid, and it matters more that you get started and persist.
The old harbour at Portsoy in northeastern Aberdeenshire, Scotland, was started in 1679. The different styles of stone show stories of rebuilding across the centuries, with intrigues such as now-inaccessible stairs in a corner.
After enjoying a treat from Portsoy’s renowned ice cream shop (there was a parking spot right outside when I went past, surely a sign to stop and support a local business!), I wandered around in the cool winter day’s sun.
There are so many possibilities for paintings before you even consider whether the tide is in or out, the sea calm or stormy, the day is sunny or overcast. On this occasion I mostly had another look at things that had stuck in my mind from previous visits and filled in some missing bits of info (such as where the stream emerges from under the road and houses).
A painting of Findochty harbour by Ian Fleming (not the writer!) has had me pondering what you might include of a harbour wall in a foreground, rather than starting the foreground with water. It might have to be a series of paintings!
I wonder what other colours that yellow door has been. I drew in a concertina sketchbook with pencil for about 10 minutes, but got cold. I’ll continue another day, and perhaps add colour to this in the studio.
I went to look at a stretch of coast near the harbour that I’m itching to paint (a stormier version of this scene is on the cover of my 2024 photo reference book). I still have to find a spot where I don’t feel too close to the edge or think about what erosion there may be hidden beneath.
“I approach everything the same way. I move all over the canvas. Someone asked me: what is my focal point for a painting? I don’t have a focal point—I want a symphony! I want people to move all through the painting and not be stuck on a focal point.
… I’m not big on simpliﬁcation. I want a symphony. I want highs and lows. I want loud. I want quiet. And I want a big story. So, simpliﬁcation is not my thing.”
There are lots of things to think about with a painting, and there are all sorts of checklists floating about as to what should have priority. I know colour, pattern, and mark making at the top of mine. One of the reasons the quote above resonated with me was that it made me realise I don’t think “what’s the focal point” when I’m painting.
There’s subject, the bit that interests me most, where I start, angles and strong lines in the subject, colours to use (or not), do I take things off the edge of the sheet, those sorts of considerations, but my internal dialogue never asks “What’s the focal point?”. That’s not to say I may not end up without a focal point, but that’s not the same as it being a starting point.
This piece started when I found I had a piece of perspex that was just a little long for the bed of my printing press. Enter the in-house art critic, the Dremel and a tiny circular saw attachment, and it now fits, giving me the possibility of doing prints that are almost A1 in size.
The ink I’m using is an oil-based printing ink that can be cleaned up with water rather than solvent (Caligo Safe Wash). The colour is Prussian blue mixed into my “leftovers grey” (leftover ink I keep in a little glass jar) to make it a bit darker. I put some directly onto the sheet using a palette knife, then use a roller to spread it out, leaving an edge that would become a white border to the print.
To create the image, I worked into the ink using various things to remove parts and create marks, including paper towel, a coarse-haired brush, and scrim (a stiff, open weave fabric). I tried not to leave any area of ink untouched, having learnt that these print as very solid, flat colour, which I didn’t think would enhance the sense of sea. I was visualising the tempestuous sea I’d watched last month as I did this.
When I was happy with how it looked and found myself fiddling with little bits, I put it onto the press, placed a sheet of dampened paper over it (the moisture in the paper encourages the ink to transfer), put in the printing blankets, and ran it through the press. I got so caught up in in all that I forgot to take any photos until after I’d made the ghost print (a second print done to use up any leftover ink). The paper was a little too damp in places and created a watercolour-type effect where the ink has spread; another variable I need to remember.
This is the print as it came off the press, with my hand for scale. It’s hanging up to dry using clips with magnets, out of reach of the studio cats.
There were two areas where the ink had spread because the paper was too wet that I felt dominated the image. The most obvious is on the horizon above my hand. I left the ink to dry before trying to resolve this. I first tried scratching into the paper to see if I could reveal some white, but the ink had soak into the paper and it was blue beneath the surface too. So I took out some white acrylic ink with the hope it wouldn’t be too different a white to the paper, and added some of this.
Here are a couple of close-up details, to give a sense of the variations in mark making. When I look at this, I’m trying to remember what gave me which mark.
This is the final piece, the biggest print I’ve every made. I like the dark blue, which I think conveys the sense of a stormy sea, and the sense of movement.
Whether you’d frame it with the edge showing or not would be a matter of personal preference; I can’t decide which I prefer.
“Much is suggested. Little is defined. While being loose, it is also precise and clear. Understanding that an ‘open ending’ does not mean an ‘unfinished’ artwork, which always seems to imply that there was a way to ‘finish’ the work but the artist did not do it. … They stop where they need to, in unexpected ways. … While the gestures lead their own lives, the subject never disappears.”
Marlene Dumas, Epilogue 2018, in “Omega’s Eyes”
A painting stands on its own, the viewer oblivious to all of your “I could/should have” intentions (unless you voice them). Stop for whatever reason you wish. You can always change the ending at a later point.