Do artists have to suffer for their work?

Thursday, January 29, 2015


Aerfeldt Squirting iPad painting 2015

When I was a young teenager my mother tried to scare me by telling me I was turning into a bohemian. I had no idea what bohemian meant but figured it was some sort of weird, crazy, luny person. She was mostly referring to my way of combining a flowing red floral Japanese looking top with tight ankled harem pants instead of flares like everyone else, or berating me for wasting the little money I had on ‘old and broken’ antique Nepalese jewellery.

No one in my family was vaguely ‘bohemian’. We were normal suburban people. We wanted to fit in, not stand out. Funnily enough, my making strange art had less to do with my mother’s idea of bohemia than what I looked like. Somehow I had unwittingly moved from ‘us’ to ‘them’. I was a bohemian artist and life was not going to be easy.

I was all ready to write a long piece on this topic. But now I’m not. Or not such a long one anyway. Because the answer is yes, artists suffer. But so does everyone else – some a bit more, some a bit less. We all get our turn. So I decided that suffering for one’s art is a tedious and hugely melodramatic subject. 

Being an artist today has very little to do with a fictitious world of outsiders. It means having a business and being an entrepreneur, unless it’s just a hobby or you are deluding yourself. The bohemian-in-the-cold-attic idea is so nineteenth century. It took me a lot longer than it should have to accept the fact that I needed to spend around half my time doing marketing and other non-studio activities. No point feeling resentful. 

Aerfeldt She was afraid of the phone (detail) 2014 oil on linen

The main artistic ‘suffering’ comes from letting yourself be vulnerable and totally authentic (or as authentic as you can bear) no matter how weird you think you are. And most of us think we are pretty weird – definitely weirder than other people we know. It’s scary putting yourself on the line. Rejection of any type is hard to take, but being rejected for showing others who you truly are is even scarier. However if you are not authentic your work has pretty much zero value, so you’ve got to dare to go there or not bother. It’s THE key part of the job.

When I have a solo gallery show it is almost excruciating for me to attend the opening reception. Some artists love the whole spectacle, but, for me, it feels like my body parts are hanging from meat hooks on the white walls, dripping red, runny lines down onto the floor even if the paintings happen to look sort of ‘pretty’. It seems that my very being is ‘open for inspection’. Of course this is not the total reality. It is a huge privilege to share one’s art with the world and I intend to find a way to enjoy it more. I WANT to talk to friends, family, the public, collectors and peers about the work that I have spent the last year or two making. 

It’s a matter of finding succinct ways to reply to questions like “What does this work mean?”. Of course there isn’t just one simple answer, there are so many aspects knitted together to form layers to dig through. It’s like asking Lewis Caroll what ‘Alice in Wonderland’ means, or Beethoven about the meaning of his Ninth Symphony. The answer is not 42. It’s more about having a discussion and throwing ideas around. Then it can be a lot of fun and an enriching experience all round.

So if there is any suffering specific to creatives, it is this experience of personal exposure. And being prepared to be criticised or praised or whatever, and not taking it too personally. It’s about the work, not about you. Or that’s how it’s got to be for you to keep going. 

So keep throwing the hard or crazy questions at me. Truly, I do want to have the conversation. Write comments, ask me what I am on about. We artists don’t want to hide away even if we pretend that we do. 

PS The image at the top of this post is a sneak preview of another iPad painting I’ve been working on.

A break from the big stuff – owl studies

Friday, January 2, 2015

 Aerfeldt Ghost oil linen 2014 26x20cm owl

Happy new year to you all! I hope you too have had a good start to the year, even though we are only a couple of days into it. Nice to have that hurdle out of the way so that normal life can begin again.

For once I have projects planned that I actually hope to achieve. Proper concrete plans for the year, for my art…. I feel I have been drifting for a while, not so much with my painting but with the business side of things. How does this happen? I don’t know. It’s easy to phase out and lose sight of the big picture. Anyway all this is about to get a big kick in the proverbial backside. More as the year progresses…

I’ve also realised that I’ve been getting bogged down with the ongoing slog of completing one large scale and ambitious work after the other. Basically I’ve been wearing myself out mentally and physically. It’s like running one mini marathon after another. Yes, painting is serious stuff, but it’s also supposed to be an adventure, play, fun too. It almost got to be in the ‘cleaning the bathroom’ category for a while there, I was so run down.

So I started looking online at the ‘daily painting’ movement, where artists make one small work per day. Small meaning something like 20 x 26 cm (or 8 x 10 inches). The idea is to be more productive and feel less invested in the success of a particular painting. It gives you a daily structure, facilitates quick growth and helps your larger work too as you apply the lessons learned from the smaller ones. There are loads of artists out there doing this, and they mostly post their works online and offer them for sale via their own or another website. And there are actually some really good artists out there doing this – people like Duane Keiser and Carol Marine who are proper professional painters. OK, ‘daily painters’ (and all contemporary painters in fact) are not at the so-called cutting edge of contemporary art practice, but, you know, I am actually over the whole idea of trends and fashion in art and more interested in decent work of any variety. 

As an aside, I recently read someone saying that an art work with a great idea (concept) but poor execution doesn’t get a second glance, whereas we feel more sympathetic towards a work with a poor idea (concept) that’s at least well executed. What do you think? I admit to being quite drawn to some incredibly cheesy paintings if the lighting, composition, colours and mark making are interesting and well done. Several contemporary Russian artists come to mind who paint in the style of Sargent or Sorolla, making pictures of pretty girls and flowers and sunny skies, but with great skill and judgement. 

I had always told myself that I couldn’t paint small, I didn’t have the manual dexterity for little marks etc etc etc. Excuses! Basically I didn’t own any decent smaller brushes, so recently got myself equipped. And small doesn’t have to mean ‘tight’ either. A few weeks ago I got started with some small alla prima ‘daily’ studies – no pressure, no agenda, and no predetermined direction.The story I told myself to get past the fear-frozen mentality is that I was just testing my new brushes. Which I was. I started painting some little studies of owls, a theme I have touched on in the past. Here are some progress snapshots. It’s early days but they are starting to evolve… 

By the way the large paintings are still on the go, just having a rest for now. And the digital prints of the iPad paintings I’ve been working on recently will be available in the next couple of months. I’m getting the test prints happening now.

Help please! There are quite a few of my lovely facebook friends who come here and read my blog, but then post comments back on facebook. It would help me out a lot if you could instead put comments here at the end of the blog, otherwise they pretty much disappear into the fb ether. And it will make it look like someone is reading my blog too 🙂 And of course if you didn’t come via facebook, even better, and I would love to hear from you too.

Aerfeldt owl study 2 oil linen 2014


Aerfeldt owl study 4

Aerfeldt owl study 4b

Aerfeldt owl study 5 Aerfeldt owl study 6 

Messing about

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I spend a fair bit of time messing about. I sometimes feel guilty about not being more structured with my time management, but the messing does eventually leads somewhere. Mostly anyway. 

Proper ‘business people’ (and I used to be one of them) have a schedule but I hate schedules. When I see the vast number of iPad apps on offer to help you get yourself ORGANISED with different kinds of lists, dot points, reminders and so on, it makes me feel ill. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to go there. Yes, I do want to be semi-organised, but I need some flexibility in my life or I go under. I need gap time between scheduled stuff. Time to phase out, mess and dream. It’s not the same as taking a holiday, which is often hard work and over stimulating. It’s time just to BE, not to feel obliged to do anything in particular. For me these are some of the most delicious moments in my life. 

Yes, my ‘messing’ does end up in ‘doing’, but it’s play not work. No end in mind, no purpose. If I don’t play enough my artstarts to get rigid and stilted.

So what sort of messing does an artist do? I am going to confess the good, bad and ugly

Here’s some of the good:

Scribbling notes and thumbnail images of whatever pops into my head

Playing with materials and stuff I have hanging around the place like magazines, stickers, beads, fabric, wool, buttons, kitchen utensils, household objects, light globes, china, pins, spikes, ink, scraps of wood, matches etc etc. Making little objects or adapting existing objects that I eventually may use as painting props.

Surfing online for interesting images. (This can also easily become part of the bad and ugly category if it gets too out of hand and I find myself looking at pictures of top models before they got photoshopped, or end up on any website where headlines feature the Kardashian family.) However the online world can be a goldmine for visual artists. Not necessarlily to find photos to ‘copy’ (by the way there is no, but just for inspiration. I often scour the latest haute couture runway shows, loving the amazing accessories and staging of it all. In fact I am convinced that there is a collective unconscious where everybody has the next good idea at the same time, because I so often see stuff from my notebook or my latest paintings also appearing in fashion magazines, or the catwalk, or other artists’ work. And it’s not like we’re copying each other. It’s truly intriguing.

Apart from general style, fashion and aesthetics related sites I also love sites like Gumtree or our local equivalent where people are getting rid of stuff they either don’t want, don’t need, or prefer to trade for cash. I love unloved objects and other people’s trash and am sure that some sort of artwork will eventually emerge from this current obsession. People take the BEST photos of stuff they are selling, often with the craziest backgrounds and surrounding objects. Like furniture in the middle of a field. 

Playing with images on my computer.  This is lots of fun and I randomly make collages using images stored in my photo library. I give my unconscious free reign and don’t try to come up with anything special. This is how the image at the top of this post happened. And the one below.

Snapping pics with my camera wherever I happen to be. Often just shapes and colours catch my eye. Or a subject in a strange context. These days I mostly use various iPad apps to fix them up a bit and play with the colours. 

And now the bad and the the ugly:

This is harder… This is when I start to waste time and these days it is mostly in two ways – going off on a tangent when I am on the internet, or doing too much thinking or reading as a substitute for action. Daydreaming is a nice-ish way to put it, but it is actually being paralysed by fear. Fear of making a bad artwork. But making a bad artwork is better than making nothing at all. Now I am off in platitude land so won’t go any further.

Anyway, messing about is generally a good thing and I could actually do more of it. Schedule messing about time. Haha. 

Digital painting – why bother?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

‘TurboWoman’ digital painting 2014

I realise I totally put the cart before the horse in my last post – gushing info about the ‘hows’ of painting on my iPad and pretty much nothing about the ‘why’. That’s because the ‘why’ is so much harder to explain. It is new territory – like an explorer looking for un-found places, an astronomer searching for other universes, a chef trying out different ways of putting old ingredients together… When explained like this, it sounds simple of course.

Artists (myself included) feel the need to produce explanations for doing things and link it to some sort of ‘conceptual framework’ (in artspeak) that will fit into an artist statement. If I am honest, I am just following a gut feeling, trying something out, seeing what can be done  and finding out if (maybe) this tool has a place in my practice. Putting myself out on a limb is important, not that I EVER feel anything like a comfort zone feeling when making a painting. Every single work is hard and scary, like entering a new country for the first time. Sometimes the people there happen to speak the same language but with a strange and different accent where familiar words have totally different meanings, and at other times I feel like I’ve landed on Mars and absolutely everything needs to be relearned. It gets harder, not easier, the more work that I make.

So, back to the digital painting – making shapes and colours on glass instead of on a canvas – I am like the explorer who has just found a nice green meadow alongside a lake and am deciding if it is worth building a hut there and staying for a few days or even weeks; or building a house and setting up a secondary residence. But maybe it floods every winter and there are leeches in the lake and nasty mosquitoes in the summer…???

For me the iPad isn’t inhabited by leeches and mosquitoes, but maybe the lake is too perfect; maybe it’s like something out of The Truman Show – that (oldish) movie where a young guy finds himself in a picture perfect town, with perfect smiling people with perfect teeth, perfect houses and perfect gardens, but it’s really just an enormous theatre set and he’s actually in a giant reality TV show and everyone knows except for him. Maybe digital painting can often end up being a bit slick and pretty, in an illustration sort of way.

I am sure it depends on what you do on and with the device – how you make the image, and then what you do with it once it is completed. Do you leave it as a lit image with the actual iPad displayed, or show it on a big screen? Do you just email it to people or Instagram it and that’s that? Do you project a series of images like a film narrative? Do you head off with your thumb drive to the printing lab and get an archival pigment print made on art paper, or aluminium sheeting (Dibond), or plastic, or even cloth or wood…? Clearly there are masses of options. 

For me an iPad painting feels halfway between a photo and a painting, because you make the marks with your hand but a machine produces the final output.

I saw David Hockney’s show of Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy a few years ago and it was fascinating to compare the digital media works with the oil paintings. The imagery used for both was basically the same. Paintings sat alongside large scale digital prints on paper and framed under glass, whilst in another room actual iPads were hung on the walls like glowing little fifteenth century Flemish paintings by the likes of Memling and Van Eyck. And finally there was a huge projected multi-screen video taken whilst driving through the same landscape.

On first glance I absolutely loved the iPad prints on paper with their mechanical marks and  pseudo textures but in the end they seemed to come off as poor relations compared with the paintings mainly because the depth of colour couldn’t compete. If you were given the choice between one or the other I imagine you would pick a painting, and not just because of the price. I guess this has been the role of prints down the ages – they are made in multiples instead of singles so more people can own them and the cost is lower. (Relatively speaking of course.)

On the other hand the glowing iPad screens were totally luminous, lush and amazing. Nothing at all lost in comparison with an oil painting there.

It’s food for thought and I mull it over. I believe that digital printing has progressed in recent years and that the colours have improved. It depends on how archival you want a print to be. The pigment inks which last for over one hundred years are not as intense as the less archival dyes used on most home printers. At least that’s what I’ve read. 

Working on an iPad produces different results from traditional media and for me this is the only reason to do it. On a screen you can erase marks instantly and leave no trace. There is no paint build up so it’s easier to retain freshness and a light touch. You can make multiple transparent layers and use translucent brushes. Way more than with actual paint. Blending marks is a breeze. Maybe too much of a breeze as it can be a trap. 

I now have a number of completed images that I will get test printed on aluminium and paper, and maybe other surfaces too. I am torn over what size/s to make them. I actually prefer them larger so that they have maximum impact and the figures are bigger than life size, however for practical purposes smaller works do have an important place. I will keep you updated…

Finger painting on glass

Friday, November 28, 2014

Above: Detail of one of my iPad paintings using Procreate

My finger slides around on the glass and I feel like I’m back in pre-school pushing finger paint. I make pretty colours that glow. I scrub them out just as fast… It’s not so easy to control, at least to begin with.

Drawing or painting on any sort of phone or tablet has been around for several years but it’s new for me. It was one of my main reasons (justifications) for buying an iPad but I then got carried away with so many other apps and functions that were great fun for way less effort. Instant gratification got in the way of productive work. I have been a total sucker for my iPad but am now getting back on track.

(As an aside, I have chosen not to have a smartphone and must be the only person under the age of eighty without one. I have always been slightly allergic to telephones anyway, but do have an ancient mobile that I am pretty embarrassed to pull out which I almost never turn it on and just keep for emergencies. It feels like an obligation to have to keep checking it and replying to messages all day, and if you don’t answer of course you appear rude so I have decided to remain mobile free and retain my liberty. Happily the iPad has no phone function, apart from skype or facetime, and people don’t get upset if you don’t answer or if you only get back to them a few of days later.)

Now, two years down the track I have finally built up the courage and made the time to giving iPad painting a go. David Hockney was my original inspiration and so far I haven’t seen anyone do it better. There are plenty of slick looking sci-fi illustrations being made via these apps, and masses of YouTube videos show the marvellous photo-like results possible, but that’s not my thing. I  prefer the work to look more hand made, not to disguise its origins.

There are many online articles comparing various iPad painting and drawing apps, but I got confused and wasted a lot of time getting myself sorted. So here is my personal low-down on getting started.

Decision number one – what app to use? (Before I knew it I had around eight apps clogging up my display, many which were free or on special. I have since deleted most of them.)

My number one choice is Procreate and this is the app I have used so far. It’s the most powerful and comprehensive of the painting apps. You get a huge tool kit of different brushes and mark making tools which can bold, subtle or transparent. You can work in layers and relatively high resolution. If you are used to photoshop you will find this app similar in the general functions. Best to look through the instruction book first though to get a general idea of how it works.

Choice number two is Artrage. I haven’t played as much with this one, but the main advantage is that it imitates oil paint and watercolour, and you get tools like a palette knife with which you can smear the ‘paint’. The effects can be pretty spectacular. I am still not quite sure if imitating paint is a good thing or not, but it’s a fun app and definitely worth trying. Supposedly it’s a bit slower than Procreate and there may be a slight lag in making the marks.

The app used by David Hockney (and others) is called Brushes. People say it is more user friendly for beginners. It is like Procreate in that it offers multiple layers. Maybe there are fewer brush options but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and in any case David makes great use of it. And, unlike the others, this app is free.

Decision two – what stylus to use, or if to just use your finger. There is so much conflicting info out there on this one. When I asked some artist friends which stylus they used, they said none, just their finger. Supposedly Hockney uses his finger and a stylus. Depends. The finger idea sounded a bit rough and ready to me, but in the end I have been using both my finger and a cheap basic stylus. The only problem with your finger is that it can slightly block your vision, but if you blow the image up enough it is not a problem. It’s actually a lot faster working with your finger than the stylus which stick to the glass a bit.

The ‘rubber’ tip stylus does a good job generally, but the tips wear out fast so I wouldn’t buy an expensive one. I have read all the reviews on Amazon (and I am not exaggerating too much as I did spend hours) and even the most expensive styluses (styli?) were criticised for breaking after a week or even less. Fingers seem to make better contact with the screen. It is tempting (unavoidable) to press harder with the stylus if it skips a mark but this doesn’t help and is one reason the tips wear out so fast.

There is a stylus with a fine tip and clear plastic disc at the end called the Adonit but several people complained that it scratched their screen, so this was enough to put me off.

Then there is new a type of (much more expensive) stylus that is supposedly pressure sensitive and works via bluetooth. It doesn’t necessarily work on all the apps, so you need to check first. I looked at a test of one model via YouTube videos and wasn’t convinced it was an improvement. If you have tried it out, I’d love to hear.

One final thing – how to print your iPad art? I read that Hockney has printed his iPad paintings up to three metres tall. Clearly there are resolution issues here. Procreate images are typically 3000 x 3500 pixels in size, so the pixels need to be increased to make a large scale print, if that’s what you’re after. The answer here is software called Perfect Resize. You can get a free thirty day trial and then have to pay. It supposedly works like a dream and can enlarge (and sharpen) an image up to one thousand times, much better than Photoshop. The reason I say ‘supposedly’ is because when I tried to use it on my Mac it said that my operating system was too old. So I first need to upgrade.

Anyway, that’s more than enough info for now. 

Studio Slave

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Days in the studio are whizzing past and I am a willing slave to my work at the moment. Getting the canvas covered happens quickly, but getting a good finished painting is something entirely different. I wish I were one of those uni-layer painters like Luc Tuymans or Alex Katz who finish a painting in a single day, however I am now resigned to the fact that I paint in layers, and somehow the archeology of the paintwork has a lot to do with the finished outcome. The work gets better and the surface richer as the layers build up.

Today a friend came over and I pulled out all my paintings to show her. It was clear to me that the ones I’ve worked on for the longest are the strongest, so I just have to keep at it with the more recent paintings and persevere. It’s scary to keep pushing ahead on a work that looks OK the way it is but has the potential to look better. I could just as easily wreck it or go backwards, but that’s the risk I have to take. If I am tempted to settle with something that is just OK/acceptable it is only a temporary feeling. In the end the painting nags at me every single day until I can’t stand it any more and I am finally forced to deal with the ‘OK’ section and try to bring it up to a better level. Often it gets worse before it gets better, so it is a character building process. It’s either that or give up painting and take up some recreational hobby instead. For me painting is the total opposite of recreation. It’s often torture and always difficult, and the more you do it the more difficult it gets.

There is one large painting currently stapled to my studio wall that almost ended up in the bin two years ago. Before finally ditching it I decided I had nothing to lose and had a final go. At this point it started coming together and now it is probably the strongest and most ambitious piece currently in my studio. But it has taken two years. Not an ideal formula for producing work for gallery deadlines.

Here is my latest painting after just two days of work. All the canvas is covered and the basic image is there, but it’s still a long road to completion and resolution. It looks better in the photo than in reality whereas once it is finished it will (hopefully) look better in reality than in the photo.


The mysteries of canvas formats in France

Saturday, September 13, 2014


When I start a new painting I choose the height and width of the canvas I want to use. For me this is something I plan carefully at the designing stage. I decide how big it will be and the proportions of how square or long I want it. Then I check out my stock of wooden stretcher bars to see if I already have what I need, and if not I go to the art shop armed with my measurements. It’s a bit like buying a picture frame – you need two lengths for the sides and another two for the top and bottom, or two pairs. And that’s how they are sold normally – in pairs and by size measured in centimetres. Then you put them together yourself (the corners are precut with slots that fit together neatly without gluing) and you stretch and staple the canvas over the frame, or if you are not inclined to DIY you can give the art shop your measurements and they will assemble the stretched canvas for you.

Except for in France. Here they have traditional pre-determined shapes and sizes you get to choose from. The canvas is already stretched and you buy it ready to go. The measurements are worked out mathematically, based on the Greek pi and the Golden Mean, and are supposedly designed so that the shape of your canvas will be pleasing to the eye. I think it dates from the 19th century and must have been invented by the Academy and no one has ever thought to update it. After having lived in France for around five years  I still have zero idea of how to visualise a canvas based on its code, but the locals talk about things like a P40 and all nod their heads wisely while I am totally ignorant.

There are three French canvas shapes or formats – Figure, Landscape (called Paysage in French) and Marine – and each comes in sizes ranging from very small to very large and given a letter (F, P, or M) followed by a number to describe it, eg F50 pt M2 or P120. Aaaarghhhhh!!!!! Figure format is tall and skinny, Landscape is wide, as you would expect, and Marine is extra wide. With ‘marine’ I imagine they are anticipating an imminent need to paint ship scenes with a vast horizon line. Think Turner and massive naval battles. Well, that’s what I picture, anyway. The thing is that no one has been painting battling ships, pirates and sinking vessels for many years – well, no one that I know of anyway. But I guess this is beside the point.

So for anyone who is crazy about maths, this is how someone years ago worked out the ideal proportions. The Paysage (landscape) format is designed according to what is called the Porte d’Harmonie (literally the door of harmony)! The relationship between the length and width is supposedly the square root of two. Whatever that means. (I hated maths at school once it got into algebra territory and no one explained any logical reason for its purpose so x and y still get me into a spin.)

The Marine format is based on the Golden Mean (1.61 and don’t ask me how they worked that out because I sort of do know but it’s a nightmare to explain). The Figure format is a double Golden Mean rectangle – two of them joined together side by side to make a fatter verson, not a longer skinny one.

Below is a table of the sizes. You can see now easy it would be to memorise them. Not.

The Van Gogh painting below is 73 x 92 cm, making it an F30, but painted sideways in landscape format. Double Dutch, no? (I know, a feeble attempt at humour.)

Yes, it is possible to buy stretcher bars by length in France, but the choices are far more limited. As a result I buy mine from London and have them sent over, and it takes just a few days which is faster than any French company would get them to me. They are cheaper too.

I have read that French galleries in the past found this system very useful as a way to price paintings. So paintings were sold by the square centimetre. Actually, I can’t believe this. Maybe there was a price per square centimetre per artist….? Even this sounds ridiculous. Today it doesn’t work this way and in reality smaller paintings are usually more expensive per square centimetre than large ones. 

Someone told me that a painting that is double the size of a small one sells for around 1.5 times the price, but this is a very rough guide. But maybe I am wrong as I remember reading a blogger explaining how to price your paintings per square inch. I’ve never heard of a gallery doing it like this. In any case the whole topic of pricing in the art world is very mysterious and secretive, discussed in hushed voices and in private. The higher up the echelons you go the more secretive and mysterious it is, but this is not my topic today so I will leave it there…

As for the French system for paper sizes – this is even more convoluted, so will be the subject of a future post.

Forever Apologetic

Friday, August 22, 2014

So much ink, breath and energy have gone into attacking and defending the relevancy of painting today. When I am almost ready to escape into my private little painter’s burrow (not to give up painting, but to give up explaining and justifying) something comes along that gets me back on track.

Here is a lovely video where highly successful artists like Tracey Emin, Paul Noble, Paula Rego and Peter Doig talk frankly about their personal experiences of painting and drawing.

Actually I have pretty much given up explaining and justifying and have learned to just get on with it. No point wasting good energy. And as you can see, this is one of my shortest blog posts and I am not going to waste any more words on the subject.

PS The image above is a sneak preview of a new painting hot off the easel.

Claude Viallat retrospective – I’ve flipped my opinion

Sunday, July 6, 2014


I have always thought of the contemporary French artist, Claude Viallat, as a bit of a lightweight. I was wrong. After seeing the major retrospective of his work at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier and taking the guided tour (with the Amis du Musée Fabre) I have totally flipped sides. I suddenly ‘get’ his work.

Most non-French haven’t heard of Viallat, although they may recognise images of his work – colourful repetitive lozenge designs applied to unstretched ‘found’ canvases (eg old tents, sails, umbrellas, awnings) or bits of fabric (tablecloths, lace, rugs, clothing) sometimes patched together. He has painted variations of the same lozenge/bean/sponge shaped motif for the past forty five years and is now aged 78. But why????? is what I always asked! I have finally found out and will explain in a moment.

Viallat was born in Aubais, a village near Nimes in the south of France. He was neither a talented prodigy nor academically minded and failed his last year of high school, so was lucky to get accepted at the Montpellier art school. I have been told that he was regarded as the least talented and the least likely to succeed of all the students, but they weren’t counting on his tenacity and stubborn persistence.

Viallat started off as a figurative painter in a loose sort of Courbet style – brushy, brownish works. After completing two years of compulsory military service in Algeria (which he hated) where he got to paint yellow lines on roads, he moved to Paris to study at the main art school, and discovered the work of contemporary American abstract painters in local galleries. This gave him a kick in the butt and he too started painting abstract works with the canvas on the ground, just like Pollock.

Viallat remembered seeing tradesmen in the south of France plastering the inside of houses, doing kitchen walls. They used a rag or sponge and dipped it into pale blue or pink plaster, then applied it to the walls in an allover pattern, producing a kind of patterned sponge effect like a poor man’s wallpaper. Viallat thought he would try the same idea onto his painting canvas, covering the entire surface. His initial idea was to print hand shapes all over the surface, like in the prehistoric cave paintings he had seen, but as a test he just cut any old shape out of a big piece of polyurethane sponge, dipped it into dark blue paint and printed it onto the canvas five times. He then tried to wash out the sponge in water, putting it under a tap, but the more he squeezed the more dark colour kept running out, so he left it to soak overnight in a bucket of water with a bit of bleach added. The next morning when he pulled the sponge out of the bucket it had partly disintegrated because of the bleach and bits had fallen off, so he took the biggest remaining section and used this to print onto the same canvas, this time in pink. By accident this was the ‘bean’ shape that would become the key motif in his paintings. According to Viallat the form was neither representational, nor decorative, nor geometric, nor figurative, nor symbolic. It didn’t have any particular qualities, so this is why he decided to use it from then on.

Viallat was one of a handful of artists who founded a group called ‘Support-Surface’ in 1969. This was (supposedly) the last ‘avant-garde’ art movement founded in France. The artists were all painters but rejected traditional painters’ materials including the stretcher and canvas, the use of a primer or undercoat, artist’s paint and brushes – all were questioned and substituted for other materials and formats. The traditional stretcher was thrown away entirely, the canvas replaced by free floating fabric, or rope or a net; the paint replaced by liquid dyes or medical products such as like mercurachrome and methylene blue (used to treat malaria or cancer) which faded over time. The idea of a motif or composition was also cast aside and replaced by haphazard shapes or mechanical allover patterns.

The Support-Surface group worked and exhibited together over a three year period, and then the members decided to go off and do their own thing.

Viallat continued along the same path, but doing his own experiments. A stretcher could be replaced by a lump of driftwood, a piece of cane, a wooden hoop, or a twig; and the canvas could be a length of frayed or knotted rope, a piece of curtain, a fishing net, tent, umbrella, awning, or piece of clothing. Viallat’s most minimal and refined version of a stretcher was simply in the shape of a hunting bow, which combines a length of bendy wood with a piece of string under tension. Viallat said that a soft material plus a hard material plus tension equals a stretcher. Or any wood plus any fibre equals a stretcher. 

The artist now uses a cut out wooden stencil to apply the bean/sponge shape. He uses both the positive and negative stemcil shapes and a big brush to loosely paint within the area. By the way he has returned to oil and acrylic artist paints.

I am pretty impressed with how Viallat got his first solo gallery show in Paris. He was once again living in the south of France, so made a trip to Paris to visit his chosen gallery and parked himself next to the director’s office. Viallat wasn’t moving. Finally the director asked Viallat to give him his address, assuring him that he would definitely come to see his work in his studio. Viallat knew that this was a lie to fob him off and the director wasn’t intending to go anywhere. Viallat said,’ But my paintings are right here’. The director looked towards the gallery and couldn’t see anything and said, ‘So where are they?’. Viallat answered, ‘In my suitcase.’ He opened his case and started to unfold his canvases. The director was stunned. He had never been confronted with unstretched paintings. 

He gave Viallat a show, but then had no idea how to hang the ‘paintings’ onto the walls, so asked his mother for advice, seeing she knew about hanging curtains. They decided to put curtain tape on the top and bottom, and his mother made eyelets through which they put metal bars to hold the fabric in place. However the director had no idea whether they should take the paintings to the dry cleaner to have the folds pressed out or not. Later they saw other folded canvases where the folds were deliberately left showing, but at the time they had them ironed them out. Eventually they came up with a system of stapling the works to a baton attached to the wall. 

This is the same way the artworks are now presented at the retrospective at the Musée Fabre – either stapled to a baton where there are stone walls or stapled directly to the wall where there is plasterboard. I love this lack of preciousness. The sculptural objects are hung by ragged bits of ancient string from ceiling hooks. The string and staples form part of the artwork, and are by Viallat’s request.


Below is a video showing Viallat at work in his Nimes studio. It’s in French, but you can see the start of his process. If you go to 2:20 you will see him starting to work. There are 6 parts to the whole interview so it’s quite extended. I’ve added part 5 below as at the start of the video it shows him applying the paint with his stencil. In the interview he explains that he tells his students that if you want to learn to paint you just have to paint. He isn’t into over-intellectualising the process. 


I love/hate academic art training

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Just mention the word ‘academic’ when referring to art practice and I instantly feel squeamish and want to run a million miles. I don’t even want to write about it here and have been resisting furiously, but it has been working away under my skin. It is simply embarrasing. I am a contemporary painter and shouldn’t be associating with this seemingly retrograde topic. It’s not good marketing.

In my mind academic = prison. It was fine for stuffy male establishment artists in Paris producing dry and dreary works in the eighteenth century, although I must admit it worked for Ingres (who I love) and a few other odd exceptions who went on to do their own thing and ‘overcame’ their training. However despite my gut-reaction distaste I still have a nagging fascination for finding out about what the Academy taught and their process of teaching it.

I instinctively prefer the earlier method of training – the ‘atelier’ model – where young (male) teenagers were apprenticed for seven years or so in the private workshop of a master and were gradually taught the required skills. Think Titian’s atelier style workshop and I am fine. It sends romantic associations through my brain. Mention the Academy and I start to hyperventilate. The Academy was a formal school with a set curruculum of lessons and classes and scary, stern professors. Actually not totally different from today’s art schools (except for the scary professors bit) because the establishment still sets the agenda and makes up the rules, but I won’t go there…

Every now and then I go to YouTube and type in Academic Painting. I somehow find myself glued to videos showing current day art schools (mainly in places like Florence) who are teaching passionate students how to sharpen their pencils and blend paint invisibly (amongst other things of course). I guess I secretly want to learn too, but am not sure if I am prepared to commit to, or able to finance, three years of hard labour in Florence. Now if someone miraculously offered me an all expenses paid scholarship…..!!! It’s not the hard labour that puts me off, but the underlying attitude that this is THE correct and only way of doing things, but perhaps I am being over-harsh. Certainly the art world needs schools like this to counterbalance the weight of the rest, where skills are secondary to the concept. But I know I have discussed this before…

A three year course in an Academy style school will start with students copying old master drawings in millimetric detail (literally using a ruler) and before they move on to working from plaster casts of sculptures by old masters like Michelangelo. Eventually the paints come out and said plaster casts are depicted in monochrome. Things progresss quite logically – on to a life model in monochrome, life model in colour… And from what I can see there is never a visible brush mark to be seen.

Recently I watched a TV programme about Sylvette, one of Picasso’s female models (she was one of the rare ones who never posed nude despite Picasso’s best efforts). Suddenly the penny dropped and I could see the influence of his academic training in the way he had simplified and structured his forms. His classical period portraits are the most obvious and ooze plaster cast influences. I mostly like old art training methods but but hadn’t really gone so far as to include the French Academy (or Spanish Academy). 

This reminds me that academic art does NOT mean that the ‘realistic looking’ objects being depicted are photographically real. Duh! Far from it. Of course I know this but I keep forgetting – we are so easily convinced otherwise. Shapes and colours have been drastically manipulated and simplified and we are being beautifully conned. I remember using a couple of Ingres paintings as the subject for my own work several years ago and when I superimposed a photo of a real woman’s head on top of one painted by Ingres the divergences were shocking: hugely enlarged facial features for a start. And what about that old discussion on the number of vertebrae in his ‘Odalisque’s spine (anything from an extra one to five have been proposed)? To me this discussion is like missing the wood for the trees, or the trees for the wood or whatever. The painting is infiltrated with distortions and liberties and picking on the woman’s spine is ignoring the rest. It also makes it sounds like Ingres was some weird guy who was into counting bones….

In our post photographic age of hi-res images, Ingres and academic art are a great lesson in leaving out and paring back, and showing us that photo ‘realism’ is only one version of reality.

But now I am rambling off in new directions. I guess the point is that learning hard won skills can either come in very handy, if an artist is prepared to use them to serve his/her visions, or can end up as a debilitating crutch and an excuse to obediently keep following staid old rules. It’s the choice that makes the difference.

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