Some critical reflections on my work and its development

I began the academic year with a completely open mind and an awareness that I wanted to develop my practice. I was keen to try new things and to push the boundaries of what I could achieve. I had absolutely no idea where to start however. My previous work had been through various changes in style, methods and materials throughout the years. In recent times I had settled on painting large landscapes and seascapes or medium sized portraits on canvas using oils or acrylic.

In the first couple of weeks at Wimbledon we put on a small show and I made three medium sized works on paper. Pared down portraits in black and white using acrylics. They were a much looser than my usual portrait style. I liked them and had ideas of doing similar work in oils on canvas. When Geraint suggested working in ink I was intrigued but very wary. Ink is a completely different material to work with compared to oils. It’s similar in some ways to watered down acrylics but it is still a unique and very tricky medium to work with. The main problem is that it is very difficult to control.

The huge advantages to working with oils are that they are malleable. If you make a mistake you can easily get rid of it. You can work on the same section of canvas again and again until you get it right. You can blend easily. You can vary the consistency to work with thin glazes or thick opaque layers. Oils are soft and forgiving. Water based paints are very different. They are difficult to blend and resist most attempts to control them. If you make a major mistake they are unforgiving. However, having previously worked with acrylics, which are also water based, I knew that practice and perseverence are key.

Portrait in oil
Portrait in oils

I had turned to acrylics when I was looking after my child and trying to paint at the same time. It’s difficult to have turpentine and white spirit around a small child so I had no choice but to abandon oils and try something new. When I first tried acrylics I was incredibly frustrated. They were so different to oils, blending seemed impossible and it looked like I had replaced something (oils) which had incredible flexibility with something (acrylics) which was inflexible and had limited potential. I had no choice but to carry on and of course after many, many hours of work I discovered that I could achieve some interesting effects. Surprisingly the effects are even more interesting because they are unlike anything you can get with oil paints and they are different and unusual because of that. I also discovered that patience and practice are everything and that restricting your options mean you have to be innovative.

Portrait in acrylic
Portrait in acrylics

To then move on and work with ink seemed like another huge hurdle to overcome. I had learned to manage acrylics and now I was going to try a medium which is even less flexible. To be honest I didn’t  know if I could do it. I had tried inks years ago and had given up immediately because they seemed too difficult. With Geraint’s encouragement, however, and with other artists who work in ink, like Marlene Dumas, in mind I kept going. I found the same problems that I had faced when changing to acrylics and of course I found the same solutions. These solutions are to not give up and to be open and experimental. If you can’t get rid of mistakes then you have to make fewer mistakes. The unforgiving nature of the medium forces you to improve quickly or at least learn how to work with errors and incorporate them into the work. Interestingly it also makes you reconsider what actually constitutes an error as opposed to a happy accident. I had to work quickly partly because ink is fast drying, and thus you have no choice, and partly because I was aware that I had a lot of experimenting and practicing to fit into a year. Working quickly suits my personality though so that was not really a problem.

Portrait in Ink
Portrait in inks

One thing that was a  problem was deciding how to hang the works. Works on canvas are easy to hang, works on paper are much more difficult. I decided against conventional framing because how you present your work becomes part of the statement you are trying to make and framing did not fit with mine. My work is about fragility and vulnerability and I felt that working on paper represented that really well, as did working with the delicate medium of ink. Putting those delicate works in a heavy frame under glass did not, however, fit with my ideas so I began a process of experimentation with methods of hanging. I eventually settled on attaching the paper to foam board with archival tape and then attaching the foam board to the wall with velcro. This gave the work a floating effect that I felt fitted very well with some of the ideas that I am interested in, for example the precariousness of young people’s position in contemporary society.

There were many other issues that I had to consider throughout the year. I experimented with scale by making a couple of very large pieces but I felt that it was difficult to upscale what I was doing and I wasn’t completely happy with the outcome. I experimented with many different types of paper, with different inks and strengths of ink. Some papers were more resilient than others. Some surfaces broke down easily with all the different washes of ink I was putting on. I worried at first that if the composition was wrong and couldn’t be changed then I would be wasting materials. Actually the fact that I was working on a fairly small scale on relatively cheap paper was freeing. Sometimes when faced with a huge blank canvas, one can be paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong on such a large and expensive scale. When working with small ,relatively cheap pieces of paper you can play a psychological trick on yourself that these are somehow less valuable. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes because you can throw the paper away. You are freed up, you can be playful and experimental and this is exactly where progress and developments can be made.

I found that using a ‘difficult’ medium which seems restrictive can in fact be liberating. When your options are limited you are forced to be innovative and experimental and so you make progress in your work. Alternative mediums like ink are different to conventional oil paints. You get different effects that are not always better (though sometimes they are) but they are unusual and unique. If you can exercise some control over the uncontrollable  and turn mistakes into interesting parts of the work then you have achieved something and those skills can be carried into the next work that you do in whatever medium you choose.


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