learning curve

November 2017

Within this last three months I have been engaged practically in the investigation of gesture and mark making, how I can control and create relationships between different types of mark making in paint, applied to a surface. Essentially, I have been interested in paint as an autonomous thing and how the artist or maker can apply this material in different consistencies, pigmentation, hues and viscosities.  I have gathered different techniques, tools and physical processes to produce different forms of mark making; and created a series of paper works which catalogue this investigation.


This has included creating marks with squeegees, draft excluders, metal edges, cloth and specifically adapted paint brushes; this gathering of marks has helped me visually explore what my paintings could practically have within them and how the different marks sit against one another. I wanted to explore the idea of how we receive painting in our digital age which is mostly through a screen, even the artists I am researching, I am not seeing their paintings in the flesh but rather mediated through a screen. Yet I still read and perceive them as a painting and by extension as a brushstroke. This built in perception was something I wanted to isolate and deconstruct through the use of three different tools to create a brush-like mark on a surface; this consisted of a screen print of a brushstroke, a squeegee moving through wet paint and lastly a thickly applied and large-scale brushstroke produced in fact with a brush. This was a progression of my last two paintings produced at the end of the previous year, I took four different ways of applying paint to a surface and created a composition dictated by the methodical application of these four processes. However, visually they were not resolved as all four applications or marks seemed to slide into one another and lacked any real definition. This year, therefore, I knew I wanted more isolated gestures, being able to read them separately on the surface yet question why they were all placed in one painting together and therefore explore the relationship between them all. I wanted the screen print very flat and mechanical looking, the squeegee section very transparent with white ‘screen’ light shining through and then the final brush mark very thick, opaque, visceral and obvious. This was successful in many respects and has been a real technical exploration of how I can manipulate paint and make choices about the paint which would reflect or reference my intent behind each mark and how I wanted it to be read for example either flat or see through etc. Learning how to do a two-tone screen print has been very challenging and I have struggled with the meticulous and precise nature of this discipline, this has also been relevant in the high level of white space in these paintings, keeping this clean and thinking through steps and processes with this challenge in mind has been challenging and I have learnt a lot of practical skills. Each mark is read separately within the surface and occupies each its own picture plane, working from the background to middle and finally to foreground. I decided to allow drips from the middle section with the squeegees, I wanted them to break out of their isolated picture plane to emphasise the idea of actual and perceptual depth.


My dissertation research has definitely been affecting my studio work in a significant manner. The research into the current state of mark making in contemporary painting has allowed me to situate my own opinion and practice within these current debates that span not only over the past two decades but in fact over the last two centuries. David Reed has acted as my main case study in my dissertation, discussing his ability to combine gestural and systematic mark making in a way of engaging both the historical traditions of his medium as well as a modern digital audience. Reed’s work has become hugely influential in my work, the way in which he splits and isolates gesture within the work has visually translated into my own use of white space and separating various marks through depth. Through this research however I have also discovered artists which sit on different ends of the mark making spectrum such as Monique Prieto and Bernard Frize. Both using marks very differently with Prieto engaging with computer software to create her compositions and then Frize making work which follows methodologies such as a chess game and allowing duration of paint to dictate work. These kinds of juxtaposing practices have allowed me to consider ideas such as the tool, methodology of application, composition and language in my own work. Reed talks about the use of light in Baroque paintings and how it always came from above to reference God, whereas in his work he wanted a kind of all over light to reference screens and how we receive or connect with digital imagery. It has made me consider the idea of making current and relevant work, whether that be gestural or systematic. It has made me question my own mark making and to some extent it definitely inspired the two paintings I have produced this year. I wanted to flatten and de construct the idea of a brushstroke which is what inspired the initial screen print mark. This mark was originally a brushstroke made by me on acetate, it was then photographed and then drawn from that photograph in simplified terms and then edited on Photoshop to make it even more digitised and cartoon-like. This gradual removal of the artist hand has been inspired by reading surrounding ideas of Zombie Formalism, painting after Modernism and painting in the Expanded Field. Contemporary painting is in a sinuous state, with porous boundaries and an ever increasing directory of marks, concepts and execution. Reed is known for his long abstract works, typically displayed either horizontally or vertically in a way which emphasises the length of the works, encouraging viewers to ‘read’ the paintings. As an art form, painting has undergone huge shifts and has managed to maintain a curious and relevant questioning of the current world surrounding it. However, with the ever increasing modern world, the digitisation of imagery and the consequential ease of access in which we receive this imagery; how can painting maintain its integrity yet still engage with a contemporary audience? After modernist painting there has been a critical distancing from Greenberg’s autonomy and purity of medium, yet painters to a certain extent still engage with abstraction as it was formulated in American formalism. Painting now sits in an expanded field where the structure of the paint support no longer acts as a parameter for the work being made and this research has certainly fed into my practice. I think theoretically we can engage with current debates very easily, but this research has practically made me re-think what kind of paintings I want to make.

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© 2019 Holly Nicholls