My practice – the process of a painting

Torn wallpaper artrage

Torn wallpaper artrage

The cold spell continues, and so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about the development process of a painting. I have chosen The torn wallpaper of childhood, a large piece I completed in November 2013, as it is a complex work incorporating both the industrial theme of the Ruins series, and the more personal/political elements of some of my other works.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, in a London undergoing major change, in a suburb where the wealth of the inhabitants contrasted strongly with our poverty. My first love was music, and I taught myself to dance listening to Rolling Stones E.Ps played at 78rpm on our ancient radiogram (they were 45rpm records, I never could sit still for long in those days 🙂  ). This was a period of development in both popular music, and ‘the Album’. From being simple collections of songs LPs moved to the concept album, two sides that told a story, and it is from this that I suspect my focus on the concept exhibition, and linked series of works, originates. It is also where my belief that even static art could tell a tale arose.

The inspiration for this painting was my desire to express a more personal side through my work, to place myself in context to the world I painted. Childhood, the formative years, tend to stay in the memory for a long time, but slowly the details fade, and all we have left is the sense of the world we grew up in, the familiar wallpaper of our youth. Here then is how I arrived at my wallpaper.

Torn wallpaper 1st day

Torn wallpaper 1st day

As with most of my work, I start with a sketch, usually done on the Artrage app for my ipad. This is the only one I have found that offers a palette knife tool, and the original sketch is shown at the top. My sketches can vary from simple layout to more complete works, and in this case I arrived at the bare bones of the painting quite early. The painting is large (150cm x 94cm) and actual paint seldom behaves exactly as its digital equivalent using my technique, so with this in mind I moved swiftly on from the roughly A5 size of the Artrage image. I start by preparing the canvas – each is hand built from 4.5 x 2.4cm preplaned softwood, and an appropriate canvas (in this case a fine textured heavy duty soft linen) is stretched across and stapled down. The result is primed with a thinned down pva based acrylic primer, and left for 24 hours to dry and tauten.

My usual practice on a new work is to lay down large areas of white paint, over and between which I introduce area and lines of colour. The paint is laid on quite thickly, with a palette knife. I use the same knife to begin the colour merges and general composition of the work. At this point I am stirring and scraping paint into the white base using the knife at a shallow angle, and stretching the pigment by dragging it lines with the edge. by the end of the first day I had the basic structure of the work, and the background top right reasonably mapped out. I did have a problem with the dynamic arrangement of the piece, so I brought the above photo home to stare at ( I enjoy staring at my work 🙂 )

Torn wallpaper day two

Torn wallpaper day two

The next day I continue to tinker with background colour and distance, and start to lay out the mid ground right. I’m enjoying the solidity of the emerging structure at this point, as firming up perspective lines is important to me at this stage. The mid right structure is an amalgam of my memories of the concrete edges of the car park overlooking the great western mainline and a row of Victorian shops that ran alongside the Uxbridge Road in Ealing in the 60’s. London was tall for a child, and the far skyline heightens the sense of this. The Icons shape in the top right is included as a link to the industrial elements of my work, and my growing fascination with mechanics and production as a child. The technique of mixing colour over a layer of wet white continues. So far I have introduced Burnt Sienna, Indigo, Black and Raw Umber to the Titanium White base, and I am starting to get a better feel for how the composition will be laid out.

Torn wallpaper 3

Torn wallpaper 3

I start the third day of by laying out the the left hand skyline with white, indigo and burnt sienna laid over charcoal sketching (I use 2cm diameter sticks, often side on). After scraping the white over in a fairly smooth layer, with an almost flat knife, I bring in a hint of burnt sienna, applying pigment in small amounts and smoothing it into the base coat of white. I then develop the suggestions of detail and form using the tip and the edge of the knife. The upper left background is drawn from a memory of a part demolished house, retaining the tattered remains of a 1930’s largely pink wallpaper. I continue the perspective line into the left foreground to correct a minor issue, and give a stronger focal point to the composition. The wide pavement suggested was a feature of one of the main streets of Ealing at the time, and I loved the sense of space it gave me on walks home.

Finally I draw in three shapes designed to resemble panes of glass, but also there to resolve the perspective and depth problems I felt the initial layout suffered from. As a boy I traveled extensively around London on the top of a double decker, and it’s widely varying districts appeared as the television we lacked, through the bus windows. Journeys to Kew and Richmond Park, and brightly lit shops on the way home are to be suggested by the colours and shapes that occupy the mid-low section on the left. The yellow used is Deep Cadmium as I like its warmth. I now had a building excitement about the piece, as I saw the possibilities, and took the above photo home to try some ideas out in Artrage. I often do this as it offers the opportunity to make major changes without destroying the actual painting if they don’t work for me.

I will continue this exploration next week, and hope that what I have shown so far has been interesting enough for you to want to return to see how it comes out, and why. I welcome comments and questions about all my pieces and my practice, so please feel free to ask.


Cheers. John




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