Most of us, I suppose, enjoy looking at images – still or moving – and there will be elements within those that draw us in more powerfully than others, figurative or abstract. We might be pulled in by the way a painter depicts a sweep of landscape or the way a photographer has captured a feeling betrayed by someone’s eyes or for thousands of different reasons.
Initially the content, or ‘subject’ of that image may be what holds our attention for a short while, perhaps long enough to make us go closer and look a little harder. From this point onwards we might go on to marvel at a particularly strong colour, or maybe a spectacular combination of them, or be transfixed by a sublime network of lines, black and stark against a white background, outlining an interesting shape or implying form. Alternatively, it might be the combination of dramatic tones, lights with darks that fire our imaginations and forces us to gaze harder still? Each of these elements can elicit strong feelings in the beholder. I too love these elements when I see someone using them well to express a visual idea. However, missing from that list is the visual element of surface texture – real and implied – and it is this that has become the main obsession in my work.
Visual Element Of Surface Texture
It happened quite by accident. My early work was all about colour and tone, and I wasn’t particularly confident exploring either due to a propensity to indulge myself with too much of both. Keeping faith with landscape as a genre, I began to limit colour and concentrate more upon the plastic qualities of oil paint in expressing ideas about trees in forests other than by colour. I was therefore thinking more about representing hardness of bark, the suggested bulk of tree trunks, the sharp edges of branches or the weight of the ground the trees were growing out of.
This process was entirely experimental and new. I began to discover what happens when you keep on adding layers of thick paint as a paste and never scrape it off. I started to understand the hardening skin of a drying paint surface and the differing effects one can achieve when working, variously, over a newly dried surface: one that had been drying for a few weeks or one drying over a period of months. I began to see how oil paint can crack and when this can be a virtue for an effect or a phenomenon to avoid at all costs. The longer and deeper I went with this I began to sense something I had not anticipated: multiple layers of oil paint began to express something unique unto themselves. Irrespective of what my ‘subject’ for a painting might be (landscape, still life or whatever) the subject of my experimental work was simply ‘paint’, and certain facets of what it can do.
Beguiling Memories & Recollections
I am still coming to terms with this uniquely expressive element and don’t always find the words to explain what it is. Perhaps that’s why I am painting so much with this process in mind. But it was trips to Italy to conduct visual research in largely abandoned hilltop towns that this interest in surface texture and layering really took off. Everywhere I looked I saw paintings. Someone’s window shutters, limp and neglected, revealed the numerous colours they’d been painted over many, many years thanks to the actions of sun, weather and time peeling away the evidence for me to see. Walls, once colour washed with pride, now left to fade and crumble revealing ghost shapes where once letterboxes clung to or plants climbed upon once solid trellis. Utility panels, now tagged with graffiti, their edges bleeding with rust where paint no longer holds back the rain or damp. Like someone discovering layer upon layer of wallpaper designs going back through time while renovating a house, I was treated to a glimpse of private history and a sense of the people that once lived in those buildings. I felt connected to this evidence in the same way I feel connected to a painting I’m working on in the studio. The surface texture itself would be expressing a feeling, helping me to develop an idea in a way that colour, tone, line, shape or form, on their own (or in combination) could not.
Of Time & Space
The work emanating from these early experiments and experiences was not interested in making ‘copies’ or renditions of places I have observed on my travels. This would be futile anyway. I may as well bring home a beautifully decaying pair of shutters and go on to place these directly to a gallery wall, for I could never emulate and surpass their authentic beauty with the working process I’m interested in. However, ideas pertaining to place, ingredients, fragments from memory or beguiling elements from real places do find their way into paintings somehow. For example, this series of ‘White’ paintings explores the intrinsic outcomes of layering oil paint in paste form, allowing it to fall more or less as it wants from my knife or squeegee, each treatment drying at its own pace (over three, four, five or more years) and thus leaving a surface topography according to a combination of design and fate, married with feelings, memories, recollections, and a sense of place somewhere I once went to.
I suppose therefore, these paintings not only convey actual physical layers but also metaphorical layers too, concerned with time and space.
Completed in 2019, ‘Acceptance’ explores the depiction of a central ‘ghost’ panel emerging from the background and builds upon much earlier ideas in Brian Neish’s work concerning decaying or fading architectural features.
The fading panel towards the top right corner in ‘Becalmed’ has been used as a device to provide a focal point and to interfere with the regularity of the grid. Additionally, it references works from 2011 that used shapes along the edges of Neish’s paintings.