Herein Lies Madness

I am at a stage in the ‘process’ where words are somewhat lumpy when trying to describe what is happening, so I am going to ‘feel’ my way through the experience over some time, as I try to shape the words to fit the practice.

Pat Paxson in Art & Intuition 1 uses her own practice to evaluate Lacan’s theory of the Gaze.  The theory is still out of reach, but by working and recording the feelings and emotions I am feeling, I hope to illuminate my practice.

For this purpose in addition to working with a specifically mixed grey 2, I am also working with a single blurred family photo (9 x 11 cms) of my grandmother and myself in 1953 in Chatsworth Road market in the East End of London.


I was the first grandchild to a matriarch, a survivor, who had no time for telephones and  the modern world.  For me this image summarises that period of life sandwiched between post war austerity, with its ration books and make do, and the swinging sixties.

By focusing on one image in monochrome, I am attempting to strip away all external influences of colour association, of working with the unknown, to access what I am experiencing when I look at and work with this image.

I am looking to reveal Bomberg’s ‘spirit in the mass’3, Lacan’s gaze 4, Giacometti’s ‘pure presence’5, something that ‘precedes perception’6, the stripping back and familiarity of Celia Paul’s portraits.  As I have said before, herein lies madness, but if not now, when?  James Lord revealed 7 that this task did not come easy for Giacometti.  This revealation has allowed me to be kind to myself.

Working intuitively, and having made a number of watercolour and charcoal small works of the subject, I decided to produce a large charcoal drawing (112 x 112 cms) as my starting point


Charcoal on Somerset Velvet Enhanced 330gsm white paper

Working with charcoal, or chalk, allows me to work virtically and to be able to step back continually, something that just cannot happen with a watercolour.

With this work I am aiming for a likeness with traditional drawing before tackling the subject again with looser indicative marks that I have been working on at life drawing.  I want to experience the little girl, me, looking back at me while I am absorbed in the process, a process that actually represents the whole of my life.

The action of applying charcoal, smudging, removing, is mediatative, almost like working with clay to mould the figures, so deep is the desire to capture the very being and never let it go.


The little girl’s gaze is intense, it follows me round the room, as if reassuring herself that I am there.  She is not yet finished, but I can feel her presence, I can sense what she is thinking, her ease with her grandmother is evident.

There is much to do, and it is a slow process, working in bursts of no more than 30 minutes, it is almost like holding my breath for each session.


Still not there, problems with my grandmother’s face, but I need to move on and discover what other problems await.  I will keep the work pinned on the wall to work on as I become aware of the adjustments necessary.


Torn photocopied mark making collaged with charcoal on paper 61 x 43 cms

Here I am trying to use my life drawing process applied to my family photo.  The next stage is to replicate in grey watercolour.  My aim at this stage is to combine the accidental mark making with the accidental watercolour marks to create an image that is driven by intuition and not logic.

Now I will return to painting alongside the charcoal.

I have experimented with painting over charcoal, but that isn’t going to work, even if I stabalise the charcoal, because the charcoal seems to lose it’s sensitivity.  I have also experimented with a pin hole drawing bottle, which requires a certain skill to avoid the paint blobbing.  Could be useful for the detail.


Watercolour on paper 43 x 61 cms

The grey I have mixed isn’t stable enough, separating as soon as it touches the paper.  This may prove to be ok, but I will mix the grey again to see if I can produce a stable grey.  Painting from the collaged work I am removing the detail and leaving only mark making.  Not easy.  I have looked into creating a projector to project the collaged work onto the wall.  Not sure if that will just recreate the detail issue of working from the original photo.  I feel a bit of a blockage with regard to the speed with which I need to work for this type of painting and the meditative process that feels essential to get to the spirit of the subject.  Hum.

1  Paxson, P  2011, Art and Intuition, Xlibris Corporation

2  Grey, based on alizarin crimson and cerulean.

3  Oxlade, R 2010, Art & Instinct, Ziggurat Books p118

4  Paxson, P 2011, Art and Intuition, Xlibris Corporation p17

5  Moorhouse, P 2015 Pure Presence, National Portrait Gallery

6  Waters, F 2015, Christies Catalogue


A Tea Ceremony

When I applied for the MA I was asked what I was trying to say with my work.  I am sure I waffled incoherently, and thought, there goes that avenue.  Two years later I would still struggle to articulate a coherent response, but now I appreciate that it isn’t always possible or necessary to find the language to describe a work, it can be enough just to experience the work emotionally.  I am currently reading Art and Intuition by Pat Paxson 1, and within the first few pages I feel she is talking about me and to me, and I feel comfortable acknowledging that I don’t yet, and maybe never will, know what it is I am trying to say, but that I am merely able to capture emotional responses to a subject, idea or event, in two dimensions.

In describing her practice she talks about an energy that ‘shifts out of sight’, if she attempts to describe it.  She refers to marks that appear as being ‘..beyond what my conscious mind could have, or would have, worked out by means of conscious reasoning.’, and what New York painter David Reed referred to as ‘..a double consciousness, a switching back and forth between a subjective and an objective state of mind.’

I want to record here my practice for a particular piece, relative to Paxson’s recording of a similar piece.


The scene had been set with a model, Evelyn, wrapped in her coat, with a backdrop of twigs to the right in a plastic sack, to the left standing on the floor, and entwined in each bundle were squared paper rods.  We were instructed to focus on ‘resist and release’.

My first drawing was an exercise in mark making.  I didn’t fully comprehend the instruction, but proceeded as if I did.  The dominant square above the large black form of her waist and legs, represented her upper body and echoed the square form behind her.  I drew what I saw in a simplified way.  Resist and release were not consciously part of my thought process.


Still not fully understanding the task, even though I had undertaken similar before, I concentrated on the shape, using the rigidity of the square shape to inform the body, and the twigs to inform the model’s hair.  All was undertaken at a conscious level, grappling with the logical requirement of the task.


For this exercise we were given pieces of photocopied marks and asked to work with as many or as few as required.  I found a face in the left hand piece of paper and a feeling of twigs in a sack in the piece on the right, and worked from there.  This work was less conscious.  There were fleeting seconds where I seemed to ‘permit’ myself to step beyond conscious, the ‘crackly’ marks on the right for the hard plastic sack, the square in the centre that wasn’t drawn as such, but appeared to reflect the square rods.


The final piece I approached at a conscious level, but as soon as I realised that two copies of the same marks could be combined to form the upper body, I disappeared into a trance-like state, working with and over the collaged pieces until I felt I had captured the form, mirroring the delicate collaged marks for the softly inclined head, and the deeper marks for the lower torso, unaware of time or space.  Evelyn echoes the twigs in a delicate and totally meaningful way, something my conscious mind would have rejected, or at best, undertaken in a clumsy and obvious manner.

It is evident that my conscious, logical mind creates a barrier to creativity, and that I need a ritual, much as Hachiro Kanno uses a tea ceremony before undertaking a calligraphic performance, to move from consciousness into an intuitive and meditative state.  Here I had been guided through the process, alone I would need to replicate a stepped way in, or  similar ritual.  I am finally learning that it is ok to not be ‘word perfect’ at the outset, that an authentic voice requires the ‘whole body’ commitment, and  does not come easily, even for Giacometti.

1  Paxson, P 2011, Art and Intuition, Xlibris Corporation.  Paxson is a painter and completed her Ph.D comprising theory and practice at Goldsmiths, London, in Visual Arts.