Small Paintings – Paint Games

About the miniature oils:- Paint Games

Ever since my first solo exhibition in Adelaide in 1968 there has usually been a parallel stream of smaller paintings or drawings to complement the better known large oil landscapes.

Sometimes it took the form of a series of ink or conté drawings while at others it was a group of small acrylic canvasses. To begin with the latter were lyrical abstracts, exploring the evocative effects of loose acrylic washes. Similar washes were also used as the starting point of many larger oils at that time. These paintings were then encouraged to develop according to whatever concepts presented themselves through the vagaries of these spontaneous forms. This method of beginning a new painting persisted until work started on the Extreme Landforms Project in 1984.

The turning point came when we visited Iceland for the first time in 1982 and I realised that a real landscape could be just as surreal than any that could be produced from my imagination. This required a different approach, getting it right through careful preliminary drawing and research. It was no longer just a free and open dialogue between me and the painting, as an obligation to the source material now needed to be factored in.

Thus followed many years of semi-documentary painting, usually based on my own photographs and sketches of the extraordinary places which we have been fortunate enough to visit. These photographs provided their own challenges as, contrary to popular belief, a photograph is never capable of providing all the information needed and must be taken far further using a kind of forensic process, and this requires a lot of extra research.

Giving an ‘impression’ of a subject has rarely been my intention. Instead it needed to be taken apart in order to understand its structure and properties and then reassembled minus any unnecessary bits. This process makes it appear more or less, but never quite, real. This was satisfying in some ways but became too predictable, with not enough energising surprises. It was also slow. The true creativity that is possible with painting was missing, with its dramatic ability to evolve and change from one brushstroke to the next.

Thus the small oils being shown here have a direct link to my earliest professional working practice as they too are generally based on spontaneous or even accidental marks which are then encouraged to develop freely into whatever concept best suits them. This can require many separate layers and reinventions, each of which adds its own components to the sequence until the image is finally resolved.

They are refreshing, being relatively quick, unlike the large paintings. They form a kind of visual diary as they reflect whatever was going on at the time, where we have been travelling, books, current affairs, or something else entirely. They use the visual language of my era and can be traced back to Russian Constructivism and the teachings of the Bauhaus in Germany. Both were highly influential in the early 20th century, where the abstract composition of the work provides its ‘body language’ and establishes the emotional mood of the painting.

Many aspects of late modernism such as ‘systems’ painting, ‘hard-edge’, and grids are visible, as are quotes from other artists’ work and from my own earlier work. At the time these styles were all but invisible but become obvious in retrospect. All form part of my visual history and are thus autobiographical.

Materials also play a part, with real cobalt-based pigment used in Fukushima Cobalt. Saturated blues have been used exclusively in some images and under these circumstances create their own distorted spectrum, warm (violet) blues through to cool (green) blues forming the entire range. Reds are used similarly in a later series. Because of the inherent nature of blues these images tend towards concepts involving water, ice or open sky. The reds similarly tend towards ideas related to the body, warmth and enclosure.

Scale is also a factor. Small size allows exotic materials and pigments to be used, as the areas of each are tiny. A very small work can get away with metallic, iridescent, or pearl pigments as it is read by one viewer at a time rather like an illustrated book, at half-arm’s length. These pigments bring added light and life into very small works thus giving them emphasis and presence. Any little painting requires an excellent surface finish as it must withstand close scrutiny.

Structures such as nets are important, having evolved from the grids and the process of ‘systems’ drawing, where predetermined rules are put in place. These small paintings, being relatively quick, allow for rapid evolution, and many variations and configurations can then be explored.

This particular group of miniature oils is only part of a much larger body of work. Each begins as a challenge, a puzzle to be solved. None of this aspect is usually evident in the final product, but they represent a journey of the mind, having taken me far and wide before arriving at their often unexpected destination.

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