What Am I Trying To Say?

This has been a constant question throughout the MA.  The truth is I am not trying to specifically say anything, which isn’t the answer I should be offering at this stage of the process.  So this week I have decided to consider the question from a scientific perspective, what is my work saying to me?

To do this I have analysed 84 paintings, in no particular order, ascribing words to each as I reflected on an image of the work.  There were no limitation on the words, the only constraint was describing the two dominant colours as warm or cool.

80% of the work was ‘warm’, 51% ‘reflective’, 38% referenced summer or sun, 27% used ‘lines’, 21% ‘transparent’, 18% ‘gentle’, 13% each ’empty’ and ‘bold’.  Writing about the work in this way, helps me appreciate what I am doing to achieve such a comment, and allows me to determine the intention at the planning stage, based on how I have achieved it in the past.

I then considered my process.  I record what catches my eye with a photo.  On a recent trip to St Ives in Cornwall it was the light.  I wanted to immerse myself in the landscape that so inspired Paul Feiler, his son Matthew, and so many other artists, including Sandra Blow, whose flat and studio, we were staying in.


My photos are filed away and only referenced, when I am seeking a base image to work from.

I was expecting to be able to paint in Cornwall.  I had the studio, the sea view, I had the famous light, but it didn’t happen.  I have accepted that this is OK, that absorption is part of the process, but the physical painting can only take place in my studio at the moment.  Elsewhere I need to draw, contemplate, anything but paint.

When I start a new painting, I reference my photos until one speaks to me, reflecting how I am feeling, tapping into the emotion I experienced taking the photo.  It is then a matter of capturing that feeling on paper or canvas.

The process of mark making and layering of thin transparent washes is a meditative one, with the paper revisited 20-30 times over a period of weeks.  Each revisit brings subtle changes in my relationship with the work.  Music is part of the equation, classical for the quieter work, rock for the bold pieces, or when the work has passed through the deep absorption stage and is safely within sight of the finish line.

Three changes have taken place recently to this established way of working.  The first is my realisation of the importance of working on a series and not flitting from one work to the next.   This will allow me to build on previous successes and to learn from what didn’t work.  Analysis will be a necessary part of this stage of the process.

The second is the need to plan and document the mood, the time of day, of year, the temperature of the work.  As a discipline it is also useful for me to set a research question for each work in the series.  This will help determine the colours I choose, rather than my selecting them as I paint, on instinct, allowing me to have much more control of my process going forward.  The third change is the consideration of mixing colours from a limited range, two reds, two blues, two yellows, a warm and a cool of each primary.  I have been exploring this idea in acrylics.  I have yet  to translate to watercolour.

By unpicking the process I am getting closer to the heart of what I am actually doing.  The analysis of existing works together with the incorporation of planning and subsequent analysis of new works, will provide a more scientific approach to my work, and if I am able to successfully incorporate the proposed changes into my process, will allow me to be one step nearer understanding how I work and what my work is saying.



Author: susanmilleruk

Watercolour painter living, working and loving Hastings and St Leonards on Sea. MA in Fine Art.

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