Pigment has always been about life, to me, and exploring it has been my way of exploring life in a way I could relate to, perhaps cope with, more intimately than dealing with life itself.
As a child, it came to me simply, in hand held blocks that excited me more than just about any other thing. Easter eggs and other childish preoccupations were willingly swopped for huge tins of coloured pencils that thrilled me with all their potential and, as I arranged their rainbow colours into order, I noticed not…at that early stage…how they were far more pristine and radiant than life itself, though perhaps my focussed obsession with them tried to tell me so.
Later, my choice was watercolour since it was as portable as my desire to slip all I possessed into a bag and carry it on my shoulder. Yet the pigment was always less than life; washy and faint, like some elder-persons memory but not yet for me.
Many years of exploring oil paints took me very far into an old paradigm; one I had to get to know as a child born deep into the twentieth century. At first, I applied it in daubs, thickly, robustly then, as I approached my maturity with it, I came to understand that coverage did not neutralise what lay underneath. Hidden layers had a way of speaking even when not seen; yesterday’s flaws asserting themselves, wanting to take part in the present, insisting that they did, so I tried to use that; to make the best of it by owning it as “true”. Like someone admitting to their own imperfect past, seeking beauty in what had been “mistaken” before, I allowed these under-layers to come to the surface but only where I said so; where it added to the beauty of the now. This became arduous, a game of control, so I spent many hours perfecting that control, steadying the hand and squinting at my canvases. Where layers of the past asserted most artfully, I sometimes used sandpaper to abrase it though, inviting it up to be seen, like someone plunging and analysing their depths might bring up choice parts of their former life to mingle them…poetically…with the person they had become. It became like an addiction to psychotherapy; useful in its way but always anchoring me to what had been, tying my leg to the ground.
With time, this became laborious, too deliberate, a new obsession of its own so that bringing up layers became more consuming than working on the now. Life began to feel like artifice, wishing for mistakes, even expecting or encouraging them only to make things more interesting “later”; as someone might live a wild youth in order to have something to entertain their friends at dinner when life became dull. While this had a degree of satisfaction to offer, to the creator, the overseer of it all, the one who loved to show their adeptness at tidying up messes, troubleshooting challenges, emerging from wrecks, it often made a mess of the picture and, like a god frustrated with their own experiment in “life”, I almost gave up; leaden with the pointlessness.
In fact, I did…for the longest time since I had started.
So there, in my story, I came upon a stumble in my artistic life; a pregnant pause or, at times, it seemed to be fully aborted. It felt like the historic times we are all in presently…a wheel stuck in a sticky groove and little desire to continue the journey, or definable sense of where it is all heading to. Had I done it all, explored all possibilities; had it all become a pointless, self-gratifying mess?
But then the joy of pigment, somehow, kept asserting. What was its point, I told myself logically, and yet there it was; without any reason for it, I still desired it and it drew me forwards.
The first time I added gouache to my box of colours, I missed its potential because I painted like I had always painted; in blocky daubs, thickly, expecting to be able to hide away what went beneath, thus with all that old carelessness, the expectation of dubious beginnings and laborious endings. Only now, instead of beauty where these oh-so rapid layers formed, the paint being just so quick to dry, the pigment became pitted and seemed dead, like the craters of the moon; its colours matte and lacking in all the complexity that took eons to create in oils. This threw me back into nostalgia for the old ways, for all that I had felt done with just a moment before; this new paint the “convenience food” that would mimic the banquet of the old life yet I wanted none of either; sought something that had yet to reveal itself and began to loose faith that it could ever exist. Unhappy with these results, and the return to the exposed old patterns of how I had always worked with pigment, which felt so desperately retrograde that I couldn’t countenance the predictable grind of their cycles of sacrifice and hard-earned progress, I put it all away again and left it, perhaps forever.
Yet something…unspoken, unspeakable still, a life force, some original spark without name…brought me back and there I was, back at my desk one sunny September morning, when new beginnings are least expected. Only, this time with a different mindset, one that was prepared to learn from the pigment, not impose what I thought I already knew.
Oddly, at first glance, what showed itself was a little like what I knew about oils but also about watercolours. It was like…though not like…either of these things; perhaps more than the sum. I could block out and I could daub, or add water, achieving fine detail, painted thinly; a whole new paradigm to be learned, familiar…yet unexpected. (I liked this) its colours remained true; not the alteration of themselves into serious drabness on drying or maturing. It was more playful, somehow, than the “grown-up” pigments that had consumed my adult years; which both excited and terrified me. I pushed down the thought “its a young person’s paint” and continued on with my playing, remembering how from a long time ago. It was the best of both worlds I had explored before and yet it was its own thing.
I could layer…yes…but, with new paint or water added, I could also blend a day later, though the paint had dried almost as soon as applied (there is such speed to life now…taking only moments to do what took days, weeks or months before). Life had picked up pace, decisions had to be handled on the spot and yet they were also fluid since nothing had to be owned this way forever and ever amen. Things could be turned around….only not so much through hiding but by incorporating, which took a different mindset; one which cradled all you had been and would ever be, finite and infinite, in the palm of the same creator’s hand.
Most of all, I realised this…that there was no hiding what I did; not really. For though the paint was quickly dry, adding water to my brush would reanimate it (oh water, eternal source of life and silent messenger of frequencies). Layers may go over the top but they would also mingle; turn muddy if I let them. So, I had to take ownership for what I did, accept responsibility, both there and forever; had to newly make this commentment in every moment, there being no hiding under carpets anymore. Karma had just gone “instant”. I had to be prepared to incorporate all of my layers as one, even as I put them down and before I added what had not yet even been conceived of. There was an honesty, a truth, asserting with every brushstroke…and a chance for mastery to assert, for the conscious creator to emerge, stepping up to all I knew I could be in the matter of living “as it happened”, without convenient blindspots, and instead of dumping down whatever suited me, as I had before when I was reliant upon those old-style guarantees that meant I could always shrug away my mistakes, disowning them. Now, I would have to be masterful; and this would call upon all I had ever learned, still asking more from me. I would be compelled to rise to the task…at last…and I knew that I could; that I was ready for the graduation.
This would have to be an “evolved me” stepping forwards now, one that was both painstaking yet speedy, flawed and yet aware, complex and contradictory and yet incorporating, forgiving. I would have to hold all these many things in the palm of my hand without dropping a single one of them and yet, even as I did this, I knew I could blend away any harshness, merging stark contrasts into new collaborations of diversity. Here, less (pigments, details, layers…) would often mean “more”; achieving the beauty of simplicity, I could sense that so now to achieve it. And a patient me, a tolerant me; this is what I felt being called forwards. Right away, I needed to cease delivering such harsh judgment upon what was working and what was not, based on old methodology and outmoded measures of accomplishment; in fact, be hanged, all thoughts of “the right way to do things”, there is no map or tradition here but there are other gauges. I could always get somewhere worthwhile by being prepared to see what new thing emerged, my mind fully open to the collaboration of what I do not yet know with what I thought I did.
And it is all new, as yet…for, as I write these words, I have hardly made a stoke of this new paint on my new work surfaces; new and taut yet textured, similar but not really the same as my old canvases, which adhered, beyond practicality, to the nostalgia of an earlier time. These modern, practical, wholly satisfying surfaces arrive pristine and ready for my newly evolved strokes and, though I know not where I am heading with them, I feel all the expectation of one who senses they are gestated into the first stage of delivery into newness; a topsy-survey slide into a whole other era that will have more to tell me about life than any that came before it; even, perhaps, for several thousand years or more. So I simply hold my hand out, poised, and leave my mind wide open, prepared to start over…
With this, my exploration of life through pigment continues, the best way I know how…through the deep inner process; the trial and error, hands-on tutorial that defies words, reveals in small flashes of inspiration, carries on the wings of the thrill of those moments when beauty shows itself and I sense my small part in it, having guided the brush. At last, I understand how this has little or nought to do with anyone but myself; for we each have our own process and this happens to be mine. So, though others may applaud or appreciate, compare or relate, the only real measure of our output is how we feel as we survey our own picture, stood back from the canvas of life, the harshest and most forgiving of all critics and the one who must live with the effects…or start again, trying different ways.
So begins my new painting process and my guide, pure and simple, is the sheer relish and excitement with which I newly approach the task. The fact that I am wanting to take part once again, not held in all the suspended animation of not knowing what, how or why, is the most significant of all. Yes, even though part of me still resisists with the “you can’t teach this old dog new tricks…I’m too tired” mantra. Underneath the resistance, I know I’m “in”, even if I have to learn this new pigment of life, master its ways, handle its foibles. Like the first shoot of spring (on the first day of autumn; oh paradox), I have pushed through my stalemate and am surveying the pre-territory of the decades to come.