critical reflections of second year of FA

This year I began with a loose aim of exploring mark making, gesture and flux/movement through or supported by my research interests in the natural world; in particular the 'liminal'



‘relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process’

‘occupying a position at, or on both sides, of a boundary or threshold’ 

I was interested in these liminal spaces that exist with the meeting of the natural forces land and sea.  Play was a huge part of the beginnings of this body of work as it always is for me, however it wasn't until I had a tutorial with visiting artist Gunther Herbst where we discussed the possibility of using paint as a medium to both pictorially show these two edges meeting as well as physically have a mimicry attached to their process of creation, that the work had a purpose or drive. Artists such as Helen Frankenthaler, Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis were discussed and their various techniques of applying their medium and whether this could be adapted in my body of work, maybe less of a 'stain' or 'drip' and more of a 'pour'. I was desperately clinging to this kind of rhythmic movement of the tides, land meeting sea, clashing of edges yet the work was, at that point, very statically existing as drawings of shapes. 

A result of this tutorial was the beginning of a technique of pouring and manipulating paint on a large scale surface and trying to mimic the flux and movements of tide with tipping the surface backward and forward. This process was incredibly physical and full of tensions, between me and the technician involved, between the two bodies of paint, between what I wanted the paint to do and what it materially, instinctively wanted to do. It became a real push and pull process thus mimicking to some extent the doing and undoing found in natural systems and patterns such as the tides. 

The underpainting of cadmium yellow was a left over process from last year where I was interested in the layering of a painting and the history of processes. I knew that I wanted this kind of manmade imposition striking itself through this very natural and organic meeting of two bodies of paint. I wanted something harsh and contrasting. This to some extent, was achieved by the yellow diagonal through the white and blue however there were a lot of connotations attached to the colour scheme; a beam of light, a lightning bolt, the sea etc. I was frustrated with these connotations and how I could push the work outside of these restrictions; this meant moving away from yellow and blue. 

This frustration led to a thorough investigation into colour theory, in particular the seven colour contrasts; contrast of hue, contrast of light and dark, contrast of warm and cold, complimentary contrast, simultaneous contrast, contrast of saturation, contrast of extension. Formally I was learning a huge amount however I still didn't know how to navigate or situate myself within this research. I had a tutorial with Andrea Medjisi-Jones in which she asked me what my relationship was to colour, not what I had researched, but my own personal relationship to colour. This led to the realisation that I have an associative colour palette that attaches itself to places and specific environments for me. I am drawn to deep, rich, natural colours. 

The second pour I attempted was with a much more focused approach to colour, I knew I wanted to use a family of similar colours with one harsh contrast. Materially I had been using oil paint heavily diluted with an alkyd medium which allowed for fluidity without transparency. The alkyd allows the paint to move across the surface and be manipulated in various directions with relative ease. However, within the paintings the different pours of paint have different chemical make ups and different ratios of oil paint to medium and solvent, this creates incredibly organic and material led textures to dry on the surface. This was an incredible by product of using the specific medium that I use and a prime example of why I use paint, because it is constantly teaching me something about its intrinsic qualities that I could never even begin to try and simulate through my own skill or effort. 

Continuing with my specific colour scheme taken from photographs of harbours, ports, old trawlers, sea-side market stalls; this second pour was attempted. This painting was to be a furthering of these different ebbs and flows of different layers of paint, however, I wanted to try and incorporate different levels of transparency within the piece. Therefore, particular colours were heavily diluted with turpentine and then others were still very alkyd based. However, unknown to my knowledge, the reactions between a heavily turpentined paint and a heavy alkyd paint were really ferocious. The two types of paint reacted in a very marbled and pictorial manner, producing an effect which was a little childish and too transient/surface based. Due to the sheer volume of paint used and the reactions it was having with itself and my cross bars starting to bow under the pressure, I made the decision to scrape with a metal edge the excess paint off the side of the stretcher- thus creating the drag from the middle to the right of the surface. This physical draining process became a technique that I added to the pour repertoire and repeated within this work several times. This drag had varying effects, on wet paint it revelaed what colour had been stained underneath and with slightly dried skinned paint it ripped the skin in specific places leaving amazing tears of paint.  


This painting, although not compositionally sound or aesthetically pleasing became a building block for me. Due to its visual, I used it as an experimental surfacr to try different mark making processes such as the drag. Furthermore, the work so far had been living in a horizontal state and completely avoiding the vertical at all costs, however with this piece I decided to bridge a relationship between the two and leave it upright to dry. This caused a pooling and gathering of paint in the middle to comprise and then deftly split and waterfall down the surface. The reaction that was caused by this tension between making work on the horizontal and then turning it vertical was really interesting and became another technique to add to my process bank. 

This painting acted as a spring board for this entire module, further down the line it became a surface in which I could practice editing out the superfluous and narrow down what parts were successful and unsuccessful in the work. This resulted in this painting being cut up and now existing in small scale canvas parts. It was incredibly informative process, making me critically choose what was necessary and talked about edges, terrain and land meeting sea and then what parts were just visually pleasing as painterly 'things'. It made me ask myself whether these painterly 'things' were important or not? Whether I wanted this terrain like quality to the paintings or whether I wanted a flat surface in which I could work on top of? This painting acted as a vehicle for these questions not only to be asked but actually, physically and practically be executed.

I attended a workshop run by Sarah-Kate Wilson 'The Expanded Field of Paining' in which we discussed a field of practice that claims a heritage for painting, yet departs from certain constraints of medium specificity such as such as flatness, paint, and the various supports associated with painting (canvas, the wall). We were encouraged to take as a starting point an element of one of our works we were currently working on and extend it into the expanded field of painting. This resulted in me making a plaster version of one of my pours and using the newly acquired drag movement to kind of freeze frame these processes in a much more sculptural way. Working away from paint for a few studio days was incredibly liberating, it gave me a real feel for how these processes such as 'pour' and 'drag' exist outside of paint as verbs and actions that are easily extracted into other forms. 


Working with my pre-selected colour scheme I was still trying to combine my research into the seven colour contrasts with my associative colour palette; trying different combinations in order to make the respective colours pop and sing. 

These small scale works were also a way in which I could practice the gestural drags which I wanted to incorporate into the larger scale paintings. It became an almost perforative experiment, practicing the arc of my hand, the flick of the wrist and the the pressure in which to exert in order to drag the paint through an already existing body of paint. 


This pour was the most consciously thought out and planned to date. The original shapes of the pours of paint were dictated by costal maps and geological drawings of specific coastlines and they followed an order and a process in which they were applied. I reverted back to using all paint in the same ratio of paint to alkyd in order to avoid ferociously pictorial reactions. I knew I wanted to use the drag as well, in a more aesthetically and compositionally sound way unlike the previous experimental piece. In terms of resolution, this work is the most resolved piece of work I have produced within this body of work, it combined the different processes and technical decisions I had gathered previously and was put together in a way that regarded composition yet was essentially created and dictated by a pre-existing systematic set of instructions taking the form of the costal maps, the associative colour palette and the chemical make up of the paint. I liked the fact that this piece really was consciously thought out however  the way in which the paint dries or acts towards itself is totally out of my hands. The work does exist in this oddly transient and constantly in-flux place between control and abandonment. Between my manmade imposition and then the natural way in which paint works and navigates itself across a surface. 

The use of a more systematic approach to making my work has become more and more relevant and needed within this module and this resulted in the creation of a mechanism which would allow me to push a painting through it and it would remove the top layer of paint and drag it across the surface. The mechanism was made by a fellow fine art student and was able to be manipulated to fit the exact size of the surface as well as the tension that the straight edge exerted on the surface. It allowed me to make really minute decisions such as whether I wanted a drag of paint that would interact with what was underneath it or whether alternatively I wanted a clean drag through of wet paint to reveal a solid block of colour underneath. The results were really interesting and totally different to the way in which I approach making work, I am interested in gesture, in hand on surface, hand on paint brush and that intrinsically organic and human gesture. Yet this experiment was coming from a completely different approach to mark making, it was still to some extent in my control yet the mark was so manmade and relied on a tool, not on my hand. There was no human error, no slight wobble in the straight line or slight dip as I reached the end of my arm span. This was a harsh, non apologetically manmade mark; I liked this contrast and tension. I also found that I really enjoyed the process of making, adapting and using a tool. This idea of a tool, specifically made for the mark or process I want to perform, as an extension of my human gesture, as an extension of my will; this is an idea I want to take further with me into third year. 

The way in which I approach drawing is very different to how I approach a painting. My drawings are all about mark making and capturing shape and form, they are filled with different layers of different types of marks made from different materials or different processes. It was after a pull back to research and drawing that I noticed this lack of variation and differentiation in my paintings that existed elsewhere in my practice. I realised that I was really craving this different type of mark on top of or existing with the pours. Within my exploration of edges I had always used natural and organic lines, however you can't really be interested in edges and borders and boundaries without considering hard, clean, straight edges. Manmade edges, mapping grid systems, this human need we have to possess, or control something natural by placing a system ontop of it in order to limit and boundary it.  I began searching for this different kind of mark that could be imposed on top of the pours, something referencing maps or grids perhaps.

This is still an exploration in my practice that has not been resolved at all and is still very much being played with. This took the form of originally using post it notes to create these grids on top of already existing paintings however it could mean an entirely new body of work rather than changing my current work. On smaller scale works I had the opportunity to try out a specific process that would create quick, straight lines. I used the same premise as a builders chalk line. I didn't want to paint lines on, I didn't want it to share the same painterly quialty as the original pours. Therefore, I soaked a piece of nylon cord in pure powdered  pigment and then with a technician pulled it taught against the surface, pulled up and then let go. This created a clean, crisp straight line that went over and in and out of all the crevices and terrains created by the skinning oil paint. Although not resolved or experimented thoroughly with, this process was really successfull in imposing this different kind of make on top of my paintings. 

Whilst in a kind of rut or transition stage in the paintings, I walked away and started making these photo collages, it is a play that I revert back to in my practice as a way of ticking over and creating shapes and compositions that could be used further down the line in paintings. However, this time round they became much more of an autonomous action rather than a simple time filler. I began playing with this idea of duration, going back through my own photographs as well as archive photographs of the same places or same themes.


The way in which I see the world is so so associative with visual imagery, I incessantly take photographs whether that's on my phone, DSLR or on a disposable film camera. They capture moments and specific times, weathers, conditions, colours, shapes and form. The photo collages became a fun way of playing with this very personal capturing of a scene or enviornment and then editing, cropping and collaborating with historical photographs or archive material that at that time would have been associated with the very places I was taking photographs of decades later.  

Creating these compositions was purely driven by aesthetics and shapes looking well placed next to each other or alternatively looking at odds with eachother. It was a great way of getting out of my head and making work that just existed wihtin itself as a thing that was aesthetically driven; this attitude sparked in me a drive to produce new paintings.

These final two paintings are not by all means resolved pieces of work, they were born out of a need or attitude to create work with the same tools and techniques I had previously gathered but without the pre-conceptions I had in my head of what these 'pours' should visually look like. The weren't dictated by coastal maps or drawings or photographs, the colour schemes were initially chosen through necessity and aesthetic value not pre-meditated. The marks were collected as I went along, all I knew was that I had these techniques and processes in my arsenal and wanted to limit myself and use each one. I wanted to include a transparent stain on the bottom, a fluid pour next, a drag of paint after and then a hand made paint brush mark. 

The way in which I created these paintings is an approach I have never used before. It was the most liberating process to just make a painting that existed as a painting, a culmination of marks, a distribution of tones across a flat surface.  Each layer was made then walked away from and thought over, considered, stared at, until I knew exactly what mark I wanted to make next. It felt the most purely artistic or visually driven way I've ever made a painting. 

After producing the first one, I knew I had another surface left over and wanted to keep going in this apporach even if the final pieces were not massively synonymous with the rest of my body of work. However,  I came to my usual conundrum of colour, what colours to choose now . I initially went for the opposite of the one I had already produced, warm tones with a cool gesture on top. However, it seemed to obvious  too much of 'me' in that decision. I wanted a system to tell me what colours to use, I was so fed up of seeing my decision making in the colours of each painting. So as I sat staring at colour wheel, the discussion of transposed chords came up. In music, transposition refers to the process, or operation, of moving a collection of notes (pitches or pitch classes) up or down in pitch by a constant interval.For example, one might transpose an entire piece of music into another key. This process seemed like such an incredibly systematic way of using something you had already created and the relationships within itself and just tilting it around to create a new collection of relationships.


This second painting was therefore created by plotting the previous colours on a colour wheel and rotating everything around 4 segments in a clockwise direction. This process is obviously not particularly sophisticated and is only really an informal starting point, however as a premise it was an amazing way of creating a new colour scheme that would essentially have similar realtionships within itself, yet be an entirely new collection of colours without me having to make those critical decisions. 


This systematic approach to colour or to painting in general, is something I would like to continue to do, exposing this tenison between control and abandonment  between my own authorship and then a system outside of my control. I think this will be an area of exploration that will take up a central aspect of my work next year. Trying to balance painting and producing paintings as an autonomous act with my body of research and fundamental interests is something I would like to resolve next year and reach a level of understanding of how my practice navigates and sustains itself. 


In terms of hanging the work, initially I had decided to just hang a combination of any of the three large scale square paintings I had produced this module. The two most recent paintings worked best in the space, three although pictorial interesting, was far too cramped and didn't give the paintings enough space to exist as separate things. These two paintings as a pair seemed an obvious choice, they were created within quick succession and in response to each other. 



However, when hanging the work and discussing the practicalities with fellow students we cam to the discussion of does it have to be hung on the wall? Can it exist somewhere else, in a different state? For me, it felt really unusual to have them up on the wall in front of me as I make all of my work horizontal with me looking down on it. Compositional decisions, process, colour; all decisions are made from this view point. 


The paintings constantly swing backward and forward between horizontal and vertical, depending on the wetness and fluidity of the paint. They go up and down frequently within their creation and I thought that I could potentially show this tension between upright and horizontal through the way i displayed them for assessment. 


This resulted in trying various different ways of propping them or leaning them against the wall, so they existed in this in between, neither horizontal nor vertical. We tried this on larger scale stages, on wooden props, on the floor, off the floor. However, in retrospect, there were too many unanswered questions and a lack of real justification for this decision. Hanging them on the wall felt cleaner and less conceptually bogged down. However, this experimenting with display was a really interesting tool and I have learnt that these decisions could have been played with even earlier in the term; it shouldn't be just something that is done on the day of hanging. 

© 2019 Holly Nicholls