Why and How?


This is an attempt to explore in words not so much why do I paint but why do I paint as I do and at this particular time why am I painting in a much more abstract way?  My interest over the past ten years or so has been predominantly figurative, concentrating on people,  faces, figures,  relationships, lots of self portraits, often with a kind of psychological / philosophical feel to them, or at least I think that was the intention.  It started with a fixation on the American painter Edward Hopper and his many works that spoke of the strangeness of people and their place on the planet.  The theatre that is the world I suppose. Then there was Henry Moore, Hepworth, and all those 1950s British painters including Keith Vaughan whose work clearly shows that development from figurative to abstract. Of current artists, the work of Hughie O’Donoghue has always been a great inspiration for me as well.

Three complex elements are at play when we look at paintings - the work itself and what it is saying - on its own terms;  the artist as creator with his/her own perceptions, motivations, some known, some subliminal; and then the observer, the viewer, bringing to that observation all their past experiences and feelings and perceptions. It’s a many layered phenomena, looking at paintings.

We have to ask the question - what is vision?  When we say "Oh, I see" what does that mean? Some artists are driven by a predominantly “ocular” vision - they want to represent and interpret for instance the way light bounces around the world or the colours they see. They are stimulated to artistic output by what they see with their eyes.  Others tend to look inwards. They are also seeing but they are seeing interior intepretations of life.  This is perception. It’s another way of seeing. No work is simple. even the most real hyper realist work, I reckon, can be loaded with a submerged meaning which may not be obvious to the viewer or even the creator.  No one can make assumptions about the work of another (artist to artist; critic to artist etc.). We simply don't know everything in this complex process.

If it is true that the  “ocular” and the “perceptual” often come together in a work then I was tempted to think of Venn diagrams to represent this.  However, my reluctance to follow this line of thinking is that Venn diagrams are systematic rather than systemic. They show  a linear, deterministic view of the world where 2+2 always equals 4 but the complexity of the world's systems - biological, technical, political, economic, social, environmental and so on, paint a different picture, one not so easily packaged. That is the problem I have with very beautiful and clean cut geometric abstracts. Yes they can be riveting but they don’t represent the “messy” world that I see around me.


So to return to my initial question, why? I suppose the answer is I wanted to see what would happen  if I focussed both on what was inside my head and at the same time be stimulated by what was in the external and complex world around me. I hoped to discover a different kind of "beauty", one not determined by external standards but one derived from an inner reality. A truth. That is why when i introduce geometric forms into my work they are never neat. They wobble and shake and deviate. It is how I think the world really is. Anchored but unpredictable.


Am I "painting" or am I doing something else? I ask myself this question because I am using a lot of different media in this recent work, so not just acrylic paint, but also stuff of the earth like ballast, sand, pumice, plaster, wood and so on. It feels right to do so.

At the risk of sounding "grandiose" (and it’s not my intention to sound grandiose), I have to say that I do not start with the work itself, I mean directly working on that surface.  I first sit quietly and kind of soak in the silence around me.  There is no overt planning, no drawing, no sketch books.  This quiet, almost contemplation, helps the inner perceptions to come more into view, more to the surface.  It's at that point when I might just get up and make some marks on that board or canvas. It's intuitive and I suppose spontaneous. I might work for ten minutes or half an hour then I sit down again and try to absorb and assimilate what I have just done. At this point I suppose I am both the creator and the viewer. The work is up on the easel, sitting there in its nakedness and I keep glancing at it to continue the conversation we have started, me and the board.


Whilst sitting I am often reading things which help me to contemplate - philosophical works or works about complex systems which is a subject I have always been fascinated by. Currently I am reading Haquebord, the American management guru who was the one I think who made universal the concept that "2 plus 2 does not always equal 4";  or Rihani, that wonderful Iraqui thinker who understands complexity so well. And perhaps more than anyone at the moment I am reading the essays of the great Catalan artist Antoni Tapies. He gives me courage more than anyone and I can't read his stuff without underlining paragraph after paragraph with a 2b pencil (that’s me, the ex-librarian).

As the work progresses in alternate contemplative/active phases I will sooner or later come to some kind of tentative conclusion. But I know better these days than to simply stash that away  as “finished”.  That work has to live with me and with the other works for some time, it might be days, weeks or months, but it will speak when it is ready and it often says "I am not done yet".  Usually I know quite quickly what it needs. Where that impulse comes from I can't say but I have learned not to worry about it and just do it.

How far do the “old rules” kick in? Like rules about composition or about colour harmony and balance. They certainly don’t kick in in an overt or planned way and one of things I often feel driven to do is destroy a part of a work which threatens to become over decorative. I do a lot of reworking and layering, destroying and as Hughie O’Donoghue put it “excavating”. The purpose may be to provoke a different response. Artistic output should sometimes be a challenge and even an irritant and although there is nothing wrong with it soothing the savage breast, it can also have quite different purposes, don’t you think?

Sheila Vaughan

December 2015