Saturday, 30 July 2011


WTF - Grafitti found on Glasgow wall.

I knew I had been captured by the art pixies when I realised I needed an easel. I spent time assessing easels, evaluating them, selecting a favourite easel to compare with other, less gifted easels. Easels…ah, easels, as used by proper artists while simultaneously holding a weird stick thing alongside their brush and pretending they know how to measure proportion with their thumb. Light wood, dark wood, so many lovely, lovely easels.

The art shop didn’t like the way I was handling the easels (look: I was feeling the grain of the wood) but I finally exhausted their tolerance for what the manager claimed was:  “taking my clothes off” to do this (it was a mistake! I was hot! It was only my jumper! Jeesh.) (Mmmm easels….)

From my perspective, art practice is full of shiny new things, and I want to buy it all. I need these things. I must have them. An easel is essential, and I’m not joking. I have realised that the proportion of free hand drawing and paintings are distorted if you paint over them on a flat surface, whereas if they are held vertically in front the viewer, perspective is better. See, I am learning.

So many new things to buy, like brushes – I need brushes. Incidentally, I became a legend at The Art Store after asking aloud if they had any brushes in stock. Give me a break, I’m new to this. But so many questions remain: how many brushes do you need, and what are they all for? And horsehair; what’s that all about – is it made from real horses? That’s just cruel: those poor little bald ponies.

Oh well, as long as it makes helps make pretty pictures.

I’ve noticed that newbies start out with shiny stuff, whereas established hands scrabble to the bottom of the bargain bin for cut-price stubs of pastel, wads of scrap paper and shards of charcoal. I started out using a swish pad, containing all of twenty sheets. It didn’t last. Soon, I was grateful to find a cheap sketch book (respect to the woman using kids pads from the pound shop.)

Then there is the magical world of boxes, containers and storage. I spotted a neat pencil holder which was attached to a holster, and I want one more than words can say. Sadly, it was a present from America, and it’s bad enough that I have accrued banker-level debts simply from buying crayons.

Then there’s portfolios. Nothing makes you feel more a like a proper artist than glumly stomping around, lost in deep thought about Art, sideswiping toddlers and elderly passers-by before whacking them into the path of heavy traffic with a massive  portfolio that contains a take-away menu and a rejection letter from Arts Council England (don’t they understand? It’s my Art. It’s my life!)

Then I remember that the best drawings I’ve seen recently were made by someone using one stubby pencil on random scraps of scabby old paper. There’s a lesson for me somewhere.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

An Artist Statement

I sound like a right wanker. I am writing an artist statement, and wondering if coming across as a pretentious, self-important arsehole is obligatory, or if there’s a choice. The overwhelming response from artist friends is that sounding like a wanker is sort of the point – in fact, it’s the law.

Finalising an artist statement is something I’ve been dreading, but I’m applying for a residency, and can’t put it off any longer. For the those uninitiated in the dark magic of arts applications, creatives vying for dwindling public funds are keenly aware that the perception of a cash-strapped public is that they are subsidising wastrels to make pretty pictures or incomprehensible installations. Consequently, when applying to art-school or residencies, artists/supplicants beef up their statement with philosophy and big words: this isn’t ordinary art – this is essential art: if you don’t fund me, the world might end and we could all die.

Artists take different routes: oblique, hopefully humorous non-sequiturs, or deep, deep (…so very deep…) philosophical (did I say deep?) musings which compel readers fall to their knees, thanking the god they do not believe in that they do not know the artist personally, and will never be stuck in a lift with them. Then there are the reluctant ones: believing that work should speak for itself, where the artist shrugs rapidly through ‘explications of studio practice.’

When my friend Leah was wrestling with her statement, I jokingly suggested google translate, converting: “Please give me a place on your fine MFA, I am a good artist,’ into notions, exploring, interfaces etc.  Behold, enter the Arty Bollocks Generator which helpfully provides baffling testimony like: ‘As shifting forms become transformed through boundaried and diverse practice, the viewer is left with an insight into the possibilities of our condition.’ Seriously, that’s what people write.

My statement is dreadful so I ask my friend Shelton Walker for assistance. Tactfully, she points out that my proposed offering does not contain enough high-quality bollocks, and that I must incorporate testicular communication about the importance of ‘text in my practice.’ Damn she’s good.

Websites agree with the fatuousness of many statements: ‘At its worse, an artist's statement is difficult to understand or rambles on, is pretentious, and irritates rather than informs (or, even, provokes laughter).’ says one wisely, confirming all my worst suspicions.

It continues: “An artist's statement should be an explanation of your painting style and subjects or themes.” Fair enough.

 “Add a bit about your approach or philosophy if you wish.” Must I?

“Mention your education, specifically if you've studied art (the closer you are to the date you left art college, the more relevant this is).” Well the Institution I Decline to Name is a prestigious Turner Prize factory…

“Consider mentioning which artists (living and dead) have influenced or inspired you.” Bob and Roberta Smith, Piranesi, Jean Arp, Sophie Tauber, Jenny Holzer.

“Mention any significant awards you have won, exhibitions you have participated in, collections your paintings appear in or significant sales you may have made, and painting organisations or societies you belong to.” Exhibitions? Tick.

Ultimately what I have written is mix of weapons-grade cojones, and the relevant, sensible shit above. At least it’s honest. Will it work? I shall keep you informed.

Saturday, 23 July 2011


Outsiders, i.e. those who do not attend themselves, might have acquired an unfortunate idea of what goes on at private views, imagining pompous uber-trendy strangers gathering to sneer, or of louche, debauched paint-botherers being lauded in a coke-addled frenzy as the next Hirst/Picasso/Vettriano after casually placing a shoe on a plinth (quickly sold for fifty grand.)

In my experience, openings feature art loving liggers propping up walls, chatting, draining the bar and sometimes pretending to care about the work. Jaded? Cynical? Guilty? Yes. I am a freeloader myself, but I always look at the work (I know!)

Recently, and totally out of the blue, Whitespace Gallery in Edinburgh requested a piece of mine for an exhibition - Whitelines, a show about the practice of drawing. They found me via artists community website Central Station but I was still flabbergasted and flattered to be asked; so amazed that I even checked to see if the place was real, and the owner legit (he is.)

This is my first exhibition. It’s unnerving to be showing work in public, but friends travel to support me (and also drink the wine, served luke warm and in plastic cups by ancient tradition.) People are examining my work, and even discussing it. Perhaps because of having a research masters, I fight an evil urge to explain the piece. I admire how practicing artists do not unveil their intentions or bully a supporting theory into the viewers head: they hang work on the wall, and away they go.

Still, hearing visitors debate my picture is bizarre, and slightly frustrating, because it is so specific in purpose (see preceding post.) I can’t exactly jump in to insist: ‘No – that’s not what it’s all about! You’ve got it all wrong! Don’t come back until you’ve written a measured critique – one I agree with!’

Seeing ‘Am I Safe’ alongside other pieces, provides some useful context, and what I self-deprecatingly describe as colouring-in (or more formally hand-tinting) has been treated with respect. I remember the work that went into it, the layers of colour; hardly working down a coal-mine, but it took a while to complete. Just because work doesn’t take years to finish doesn’t mean it isn’t viable and valid. You see - I can’t help but justify what I do. I must learn to resist.

My work featured in another exhibition – the excellent Text Festival  in Bury Art Gallery. I was overwhelmed at the sight of my samplers displayed in a magnificent Victorian hall, although both halves of a diptych are separated – a minor annoyance, but that’s what curators do. As I walked around the spectacular show, which crystallised the view that words, text and fonts are beautiful when presented as objects in their own right, I decided to take some pictures.

Immediately, an invigilator challenged me to stop.
‘It’s okay.’ I said. ‘I’m one of the artists.’
And it felt good to say that out loud, in public: to come out as an artist, a word I have avoided until now. I need to grow accustomed to curators. I must harden myself to the comments, impressions and ideas of others regarding my work. And I must get used to exhibiting, because more shows are in the air.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Photomontage. And HUGE bunny rabbits.

I love photomontage. I love the idea of creating a mash-up of images and I’ve been exploring it’s modern sibling – photoshop. I should enjoy the freedom to juxtapose any photo, shape of colour of my choosing, but here’s the problem: I was initially defeated by my own technical ineptitude. Yes, I know - read a manual, but even basic, ‘for-dummies’ guides are not aimed at techno-fuckwits like myself.

And so I chose my images: a street scene, a man juggling whilst riding a unicycle, a rabbit, a blue bus and a shot of a recognisable, even iconic famous person, for reasons I shall explain later. I am ready to start creating, except that I can’t assemble the separate layers, until a friendly library technician (speaking so slowly I think he’s going to shout: “Do you want to go to the toilet?” as if I am ‘deluded and confused’) patiently demonstrates a mystical process involving a magic lasso, and carefully drawing around the outline of a bunny.

The next step is the hand-tinting (or for smart-alecks, the colouring-in) and so it’s time for my first trip to the art store, where I soon become a legend: with no knowledge of the pros and cons of the different materials, I ask vaguely for something in silver and gold, returning several times to pick up a selection of strident blues, shades of grey in pastel, pencil and let’s be frank – crayon. My best discovery is the joyous metallic Indian ink.

I spend time layering colour, tinting and obscuring the street elements and shimmering misty semi-images, in an approximation of what I saw a few years ago, when I went temporarily blind (which is even less fun than you might expect). My mind could not process the dwindling information my optic nerve was relaying, and so I saw people on the street at dusk as jugglers on unicycles.

A huge bunny rabbit became the emblem for what happened, as that's what my mind showed me – not really a bunny, but a man waving his arms around. Finally, I add a recognisable face vexatiously obscured, which happens even now (it’s James Dean in case you didn’t guess.) Next, an azure bus, which soon became beautiful to me, since blue was the only colour I could perceive.

To my amazement, the incredible website and huge artists support network Central Station select this image as work of the day. For the first time, I actually feel like I might be on to something. It’s also shown in Aberdeen.

Unfortunately, I had used ordinary photocopy paper, not specialist water resistant paper, and when the finished picture was finally immortalised in a lovely silver frame, it returns with a noticeable crease, which - mercifully - I manage to ease out. Lesson learned.

I used the hand-tinted photomontage technique to develop another picture in the sequence, which I am asked to lend to the Whitelines Gallery in Edinburgh, for a show on Drawing. My response to the lovely curator Leigh Chorlton is to question his sanity. He’s saner than most, so I deliver the picture. And just so you know, I remember that rabbit fondly.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Media Frenzy

I spent some time recently at the centre of media whirlwind, being hounded by paparazzi, waiting, always waiting in soulless green hospitality rooms before my many TV appearances, with flunkys fending off interview requests around the world.

Oh, okay. I was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Who’s the best artist in the land? Damien Hirst? Tracey Emin? Wrong. Of course, it’s down to taste, but in reality, they are the UK’s most famous (and maybe richest) artists. I mention this because fame and the media play an enormous part in creative life these days. My own appearance was related to my work in The Text Festival in Bury, where I was showing two samplers called Hard To Say Goodbye Parts 1 and 2. I appeared with Sarah Greaves, who embroiders hard surfaces, like sinks and toasters. We have both contacted the show about our work and exhibitions: if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Whist still a student at The Institute I Decline To Name, I organised a seminar for emerging artists on press contacts called: ‘When Will I Be Famous.’ I think the fact that famous and popular artists work hard to attract media attention came as a shock to many students: they needed to learn how to write succinct press releases as opposed to flowery, obfuscating artist statements (NB – my battle to create such an item will follow soon.)

Back on Radio 4, the segment introduction mentions Tracy bleedin’ Emin. I am not a huge fan of her collages (that’s what they are, not embroidery, and I’m not sure if she makes them herself.) I admire Grayson Perry, and Dadaist stitchers like Sophie Tauber and Jean Arp, or even the narrative power of the Bayeux Tapestry (FYI – it’s an embroidery, not a tapestry) and the subversive sign-writing of Bob and Roberta Smith. I don’t have a chance to explain this which is just a blip.

Certain of my samplers lift accounts written by women on the walls of public toilets. Do I spend much time hanging around in the ladies, I am asked. I have done: I record graffiti in writing as toilets are too dark for my cheap camera. I am asked tactfully about how my sight problems affect my work, and about my piece called: ‘Tower of Babble’ which orders buzzwords on poverty and avarice in the shape of a tower block. I’ve done enough interviews in my life as a writer (at the time of writing, the designation ‘journalist’ is as popular as strangling old people for money) and am aware of how to get some of my point across. Jenni Murray is, as ever, erudite and tactful. I am lucky to be here.

I don’t have free-rein to say everything I want – for example, to clarify that I also make hand-tinted photomontages. But I am lucky to have had this precious opportunity, and tellingly, soon afterwards the website where I show my work attracts many more hits. Now, however the whole world wants a piece of me. I have become public property. When will it end? *the tortured artist flounces off*

Tuesday, 12 July 2011


If I ever require brain-surgery, I want an expert surgeon to operate, not some chancer who’s decided that hacking into my head might just work out: well, they gave plumbing  a go (only had a few leaks) and now they plan to crack open my skull with a teaspoon.

That said, despite my lack of formal training, I want to paint, perhaps because of some childish vision of knowingly wielding a palette whilst frowning and wearing a beret, as that’s what proper artists do, right? Oils are expensive and require some technical knowledge with regard to palette and under-painting (note to self: try the internet stupid) so for now, watercolours it is. Unfortunately though, whenever I hear ‘watercolours,’ my mind produces words like damp and insipid.

Watercolours are often a childhood point of contact with art materials: remember those cheap tin boxes with a memorably pungent aroma? (They also smack of art clubs and pictures of cats and posies.) Asking around, few of my art-school trained friends were taught how to use them. Perhaps that’s why they have rejected watercolours, having been captured by the conceptual art pixies and led down the path of installation, performance and artist films. (NB: I shall try them all in the future.)

But I like watercolours. I bought a box of mid-range paints ranging from jewel bright to the earthy tones I reach for elsewhere. I do not buy a beret (not yet.) The ‘artist quality’ paints are punitively expensive and therefore beyond me, but I notice that they are brighter, truer and denser in tone.

My first attempt at watercolour painting is defeated by - of all things, water. An unexpected deluge drenches both me and my first effort, but at least teaches me a lasting lesson: paper must be suited to the medium i.e. it mustn’t crease, or break when sodden. My friend Youngjoo approves, since she insists that great artists must suffer. I am not tortured, just a bit soggy.

I find that watercolours do not lend themselves to life painting, but seem to suit landscapes. I also discover that they dry rapidly, do not blend once applied (mixing in the palette doesn’t work for me - I end up with a puddle of ugly thin mud) and you can’t build up layers of colour.

Beside the sea at Troon, I find a view where the sea meets the sky and there are hills, but the dreich weather makes everything look like a large mountain of sludge. Youngjoo points out that I am using broad sweeps of colour, painting shapes directly rather than creating an exact likeness. I like that. In my craziest, most outlandish, deluded, unreasonable and ambitious dreams I can paint like Rothko. Truthfully, these are my first ever dabbings. I’m just sticking paint onto a surface, but as the rain inevitably falls, and the painting expedition retires for a fish supper, I decide that I love painting. And that I like watercolours. And that berets do not suit me.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Life Drawing

A life class is no place for self-consciousness, prudery or sniggering (that said, one model is so uninhibited she re-enacts the terrifying scene in Poltergeist where the kids are terrorised by a giant vagina lurking in the toy cupboard.)

Life classes (or rather, permission to stare at naked people without being arrested or shunned) are exulted by artists as the very basis of representative art. When I first began to draw the human form, I was drawing stick people. I hadn’t picked up a pencil with intent since I was twelve, but was pleased to be sketching the legend that is Jeff the life model (he’s shaved so to facilitate our drawing his dick.)

Everyone has their own technique. Some people are life painting. One smart alec is using a laptop, while another is making collages out of ripped paper and elastic bands. The models run through poses: some with props (one actually puts a bag on her head) while others lie on the floor (not moving is tiring, and lying prone must be a blessed relief.)

As a novice, I am concerned with proportion, scale, and realism, although I don’t aim with hyper-realism (I couldn’t even if I wanted to.) With me – if a drawing looks vaguely like an earth dwelling creature, then that’s a bonus. Mostly, I want to capture and express some sense not just of the body, but the personality in front of me, as opposed to a cold but accurate replicant.

Penis. Nobody says it, but we’re all thinking it. Before I attended my first life-class outside of the Institution I Decline To Name (I don’t want to tell tales) I noticed that drawing willies is a hobby common amongst those who frequent the pub above the room where classes are held, because there are loads scratched freehand on the tables.

Now I know that I can’t draw a dick to save my life.

One model is older than the others, some of whom resemble the young protoganists in Hollyoaks: smooth and free of creases. They seem to have amassed no backstory. This particular gentleman is draped in a white sheet, and to me he seems somehow heroic and wise, like a good philosopher shortly before he’s forced to drink poison. Those around me say I have gone some way to communicating this.

I have learned this much so far: I don’t like charcoal, as it makes drawings look like people have a false black wall around them, and that I like using colour. That I go over outlines time and time again to build up layers of colour, and that I don’t like the fast poses (I can’t see too well, and need to adjust to what I presented with.)

A man who has been watching me work leans across and asks about my training and background. I have neither: am fresh to drawing and also am untrained. “Well,” he says. “You’re not wasting your time are you?” Which, considering that just months ago I was drawing stick men is a massive compliment.

Friday, 1 July 2011

An Innocent Artist Abroad - Part One.

Do we actually need an art school education? Must we be taught to paint? How long does it take to learn a new artistic skill? And is there any fun to be had in trying? Since taking up visual art, I have experimented with life-drawing, described myself as a Dadaist (sharing their love of photomontage and embroidery) and obsessively painted abstract watercolour landscapes. I’ve even shown work in actual, proper galleries.

You might cynically decide that I am a chancer evading the awkward silence accompanying the phrase: “I studied art,” that I should do my foundation and get poor and grubby like everyone else. I have some basic experience, having recently graduated with a useless research masters from an institution I decline to name, but mine is punk art, currently text embroideries: as Sid Vicious might have said, just get some fucking thread and do fucking stitching. A friend sent a fools-guide to cross-stitch, after which came extravagantly foul language as I sewed my first text based samplers.

For subject matter – how about death and misery? I have written about housing, and realised that conversations overheard on the balcony of my former home might be informative. Eavesdropped dialogues involved murder, suicide, drug dealings, and infidelity. I copied down the heart-rending graffiti found in women’s toilets: “I’ve just been diagnosed with bi-polar. What my gonna do!” I got funny looks when edging closer to capture accurately some surly, mismatched couples speaking in cafes: “…but then, my mum was only fourteen when she had me.”

My first embroideries were completed in a mist of blood oozing from my now pricked-to-the-bone fingertips, sorrow, growing enthusiasm and some surprisingly positive feedback (from certain others there was also beard stroking and bile but let’s ignore that.) I’ve enjoyed some success. At the time of writing, this stunned but proud chancer has a diptych showing at the beautiful Bury Art Gallery, a drawing shown by invitation in Edinburgh and been featured in a book – all just one year after my debut.

Over the next few months, I shall try everything once and then maybe again: performance (boy, do I have plans for that) a wilfully and spitefully languorous artist film, painting pretty pictures of cats, displaying appealing found objects,  watercolours, life-drawing, causing critics to say: “…call that painting? My toddler can do better than that!” along with installation, and sound work (my first attempt with the latter involved my friend Sara screaming into a microphone so ferociously that my nose melted) and even the cranium-grinding bane of every artist’s life – proposals and applications.

My life will become a conveyor belt/smorgasbord/tasting menu of artistic experience and practice. I will share my success and failure with you all, ascertaining if technical skill, art-school life and the assistance (shame and vitriol) of those notorious and punitive crit sessions is necessary, or indeed desirable. And so the adventure begins. Pass the turpentine and strap me in.
(Note to self – do not drink the turpentine.)

Life drawing again.

Life drawing again.

Life Drawing

Life Drawing
Almost human