For me a painting begins with a photograph. Or with an idea, before the photograph exists. Or with an idea that springs from the photographic image. But without the photograph, there is no painting. For it’s a deep exploration into the image the camera has caught that tells me what significance might be here.
I may start by arranging some still life material – in the last few years, old, dried roses – to create a composition that both appeals visually and suggests meaning, not knowing what the meaning is until I see the composition. I set up multiple light sources around the arrangement to produce layering of shadows and intensity of color, to say something not only about the roses but also their world. I photograph them and often manipulate the digital image to achieve a desired range of colour and richness.
Or some thought I hadn’t thought before suddenly appears, generated by a conversation or a suggestion or even an assignment. And with it an image appears too, and I must go looking – through my own existing images, or found photos, or the lens of my camera – for the photograph that looks like the thought.
Or the photograph appears first, and with it the thought, and the need to show what that thought looks like.
However it happens., I have an image to work from. Not that the image itself is the painting. Before that happens, I manipulate the image digitally, to achieve a desired range of colour and richness. This is still not the painting. The painting begins when I crop the image, taking out everything possible so what is left seems inevitable.
I then work out the image in an elaborate contour drawing on my painting support, and mix colours in response to the photo. These are applied using an uncertain, oily medium, with a stick that won’t completely let you direct it, and placed with one slightly transparent brushstroke next to or on top of another, until it becomes something that didn’t exist before. It’s always precarious, from beginning to end.
As I work, I aim to develop one area thoroughly before moving to another, so that the viewer might see clear relationships between the areas. The rest of the piece follows. You never know until it’s finished whether it’s all a big mistake or not! And you hope it makes sense.
I’ve heard it said that using a photograph as source material precludes the making of art. But I’ve been around a long time and I’ve also heard that a painting with any subject at all cannot be art. And that painting in any form can’t be art either.
Maybe the making of art has less to do with its source material or its subject or the form it takes than it does the artist’s journey in the making. It has to do with you.
What do you think? How is art defined? Can it be defined at all?
This article was originally published as a blog post in 2016 and has been updated for 2021. If you’d like to know when more articles for your art practice are published, please click here.