When I made a painting of a significant tree in our garden by drawing through layers of paint, I felt that the physicality of the process, the inherent destruction and violence of tearing back into the medium and even the support, the immediacy and speed of working, would be most appropriate for a subject about which I felt strongly, even angry, about. My research into indirect portraits also made me look at not just the subject but the power of the emotion of the artist and viewer.
For a considerable time, I have been considering how I might make work about the loss of my father when I was relatively young (mid 20s), how I still feel his absence after more than 30 years and how angry I still am with him for dying and leaving the family in difficulties. I dream regularly that he did not die but just walked out on us and has will just walked back, if as though nothing had happened. Often, in my dreams, he is just standing there, at the periphery of my vision, an almost unseen presence. I recognise these subliminal thoughts as perfectly natural in the face of sudden, unexpected loss, so I am not hung up on it, but they do exist and I have wanted to express them through my art.
The techniques of scratching through, addition and obliteration seem to me a good way to express these feelings and to express my anger and loss. I was thinking about this as I carried out research into indirect portraits through possessions. That research morphed into looking at indirect representations where the subject was distorted or suggested but not represented realistically in detail. That is what I have attempted here.
As suggested by my tutor, I am trying to work large, and the use gesture. In this piece, I have used the largest support I have available, 60 x 90cm, which was prepared with gesso and a ground of dark blue acrylic paint. A piece of coloured tissue was applied to vary the surface and add depth. Following the theme of absence, I decided, looking through my scratch-through samples, to work from dark to light so that the figure would appear almost as a hole in the picture plane. The figure is to be suggested as a presence which is also an absence.
My next layer was laid on very quickly with a palette knife using a combination of reds. I wanted the colours to reflect my anger and also make the work unsettling, so I have selected complimentary colours. I have wiped and scratched back through the layers, using my hands, nails and other implements, to ‘discover’ a suggested figure. I have used slow drying medium to lengthen the working time to enable me to work on this scale. That has the result that I can work quickly and instinctively on each layer but then have to wait a day or two for that layer to dry before continuing. I have tried to suggest that the figure is turned away and perhaps moving out of the picture plane but not really worried about that too much.
At this point I was unsure about the last grey/white layer. I felt it was too flat due to being opaque. It didn’t have the sense of physical space I was feeling for. I photographed the work, imported it to a photo-editor and drew on it roughly to see if I could find a way forward, perhaps by going dark again.
I think that the dark background best creates a sense of absence in space and the added lines give the figure some, but not too much direction and definition. I wanted this final layer to be transparent, so I brushed the work with washable Indian ink which I could swipe out, wash into, etc. I used a red oil pastel for the lines but wished that I had had a larger, stronger, red oil stick.
The Indian ink has picked up underlying texture and created variable tone with transparency. It also produces soft edges which work against hard edges of acrylic to add to the sense of physical depth.
This piece has been a visceral response to personal feelings using the physicality of the technique. It has not been particularly considered and analysed during the making; I have just torn into it. I think that this gives it an immediacy and power which I could not have achieved if it had been developed through thumbnails etc. However, I could not have done it without the research into narrative and representation and without having completed the tree work. These put me in the right place to express my feelings in this way and it is a subject I plan to follow in the next project, even though I don’t have any of my father’s clothes etc. However, I do think that this is a piece where ‘the materials contribute significantly to the way the piece is read’ and so this project is merging into the next project.
2.3 Narrative through materials
I have continued to explore this theme in my sketchbook looking at the characteristic of various materials and how they could be used to create a sense of depth and presence/absence. I have now moved to working in monochrome because the possibilities of ink, graphite and charcoal excite me, but mainly because I want to eliminate possible cultural readings of colour or any prettiness.
In my sketchbook researches, I was looking for an impersonal representation, an ambiguity about whether the figure was animated or not. I found it difficult to avoid marks that suggested a shroud or veil; this isn’t intended to be ghoulish.
These figures remind me of Anthony Gormley’s drawings of figures and I suspect I was drawing on the memory of these.
I also looked at some old photos of Dad to see if I could isolate any identifying features which I could select, or use on their own, but without success.
One of the ideas I wanted to pursue was how I might give a physical presence to the space in which the figure was absent/present. I used a piece of plywood and prepared it with a skim of filler using palette knives. Since the resulting surface was very porous, I prepared it with diluted gesso, diluted so that it did not fill the texture. This was then painted with water and liquid graphite. The graphite can be manipulated in the water and moved around. It can be reactivated and washed away, allowing me to create an ‘absence’. When dry, the surface was worked back into with pencil and graphite block.
Plaster on board has created a characterful surface which allows for a range of tones through the puddling or swiping of the graphite. The surface is accepting of linear marks but these are permanent and cannot be manipulated, resulting in a strong contrast between the types of mark. The marks made by the graphite block are too heavy and lumpy in places such as the right hand margin of the figure. The graphite has a silvery etherealness which works well for he subject. Washing the figure into the background has created a presence which is also part of the structure of the space it exists in, but this is undermined by the hard edges in some places. In trying to give the figure volume, I have also suggested some sort of binding, which was not my intention and I really dislike. However, I do think the nature of the physical surface has created real variety and interest and has given structure to space, which is what I was looking for.
Narrative through Possessions
The two previous works about my father concentrated on the use of materials and technique to create narrative. The course suggests the method of making a portrait of a person through their possessions. I have very little let of my father’s personal possessions but I do have some masonic medals which I have not found an appropriate way of passing on. My father was heavily involved in freemasonry to the point that he rarely spend an evening at home with my mother. When he died, he was about to retire and they hoped to spend more time together. Part of my anger about his death is, I think, because my mother was robbed of this. I realise I have a resentment about how much time he gave to his masonry.
The medal doesn’t really evoke him, for me. The next work is very much a development of the two previous pieces but the absence is here symbolised by the masonic medal, white gloves and fringed leather apron. I never saw him wear his regalia, so that is very much from my imagination. I think there was a sash, too, but I don’t remember that. I have very few photographs of Dad, and those are when he was very young, so I have tried to vaguely find his features in the graphite. He is deliberated detached from me, the observer.
Unlike the acrylic painting, this work has been developed over a much longer period. Without a photographic reference, I have searched for a sense of the mass of my father in the space by adding and removing layers of graphite, removing and restating over and over again. This has resulted in so much graphite burnished into the paper in places, such as the right side of the face, that finally it could no longer be added to or removed.
The medal is larger than real life size and certainly larger than it would have looked on his chest. I have drawn it straight on whilst the figure is slightly below me, and turned. I have tried to give the medal a importance and force of its own. It has light motes shining off it as if it glows with inner force. I could have drawn it in more detail with pencil rather than block graphite, but I think that this would have altered the dream-like mood of the work.
The soft graphite (a Derwent XL block) creates dense dark tones which I have drawn back into with a wedge shaped plastic rubber. This has created soft marks and dense blacks which support the sense of a dreamed or imagined presence.
The figure is stiff and still, like a dummy. The form is lost and found repeatedly against the background tones. I am sure the proportions are wrong, not having any reference, but I don’t think that is material; this is meant to be dream, not reality. The right hand side of the apron is definitely all wrong and the hands are unreal. However, I do think that the intended narrative is successful.
I have realised that I think of space as being far from empty and maybe that results from my interest in astrophysics. Even intergalactic space is full of electromagnetic forces, gravitational waves, photons and particles. I see space as having texture and structure and being influenced by the presence of objects within it.
This final piece is the culmination of thinking about the presence/absence of my father in the space of my dreams. The figure is barely suggested and exists by inference in a landscape of marks which respond to the void.
I started by very loosely suggesting my figure in white and black oil stick. In order to create the variety of mark and texture, I painted the support with a strong solution of salt which surrounded my figure and occasionally intruded into it. I drew into this with shellac based Indian ink on a 3 inch chisel brush, the largest I own. This allowed for strong, expressive marks of varying thickness. I worked very fast on the floor and ink got dripped around. Water was used in places to soften an edge, and this also dripped in places.
In order to give some loose narrative and characterisation, I used the work I had done looking at my father’s eyes to create some semblance of ‘mask’ of the eyes and imply the head turning away from me. To consider how I might develop this treatment of eyes I want to look at the work of Marlene Dumas.
This final piece is the culmination of a series of works and sketchbook explorations which was very quick in execution but the result of a long process of thought. It could not have been created without everything which went ahead of it.
Since I was working quickly and instinctively, not all the marks are as well judged as each other. In particular, I regret the two fine all most parallel, sweeping marks across the middle of the torso. One, stronger mark linking the external space with the figure and implying movement would have been better.
I believe that it is the most successful of the works and has both drama and ambiguity. The subject is apparently very simple, a figure turning away, but this is only suggested and the observer can place many interpretations upon it. The richness of the mark making creates visual interest but also an physical environment that the figure exists within. The more closely you look at it, the more detail of texture is revealed but the large scale of the brush marks make for a strong large scale composition.