Context over time

Sampled from my own library to evidence the inspiration of science over decades – into the present with A Universe from Nothing. See below Out of the Huge First Nothing – most recent painting in progress, nearing completion:


Historical context

This is many-layered as I am old enough to be able to look back on a body of work concentrating on paintings, made over a period spanning almost 35 years, which means I can remember very well the time when we did not have computers – eventually no one will be able to remember a time before the world went digital. I realise this gives me a special perspective.

My first context was as a student of Botany (now called Plant Sciences) at the Universiy of Manchester. I remember in particular the frustration I felt at being unable to express, yet being transfixed by, the world I saw looking down a microscope. An internal universe of cells forming the building blocks of the body, the internal universe evident in my paintings today.

Scientific drawing, which I was called on to do, is a harvesting of information about something exactly as it is, as far as possible without interpretation, certainly not imaginative interpretation. The fineness of scientific drawing is measured in terms of its accuracy of description. The rigor of science stays with me in the fineness that I aim for in the paintings, for me that fineness represents not so much accuracy as a depth and intensity of thought. Scientifically too, I have put my own work repeatedly to the test as I have gone along, Science does not make claims without proper evidence as back up. The beauty of Science is that, like Mathematics, it is a universal language understood by anyone in the world working in the same field. I have this feeling about the painting – that it should point towards the possibility of a universal language regardless of cultural background. so that my painting is more a matter of that which I have left out of it. I have wanted to allude to common ground, be expressive of commonalities between us all, that this is presented through my own subjectivity is something that cannot be otherwise. I have questioned myself, reflected intensely over many years, filtering and distilling in the form of the painting, leaving out all that is not needed, simplifying without oversimplifying.  To oversimplify, to my mind leads to a self- annihilation. I am after that which is expressive of common descent, human commonality without loss or compromise of individuality. I see the potential for communal solidarity so needed in the world today in numerous ways.  

The most obvious commonality is that we are all alive due to being bodies subject to the same processes that keep us alive, s diffusion, osmosis, and homeostasis.  I see my painting as a form of cultivation of that which has the property of being alive. I remember as a biologist culturing living things such as fungi, in Petri dishes, on nutrient agar. I see the surface of the painting as a nutrient medium, a fertile field.

I also studied Geology, which takes history back to before life began, connecting us to the even remoter past by an unbroken thread still within us today.  Everything has come from the same atoms that run through everything, the material first, life next, then the consciousness of being alive. My paintings are imbued with their own geology, they have layers of material. The inscapes represented in my pictures were once the external landscapes from which we have all come. I see a homeland and horizons which are common to all.

I can only just begin to touch on specific influences and inspirations as there are so many. One I remember, still at Manchester; as part of my paleobotany option I used the electron microscope and still have the pollen grain photos which I took myself; the whole procedure is intricate; the specimens had to be gold coated first – it felt artistic, the process was beautiful and the spatial came into play. I followed through the whole process myself and it was immensely satisfying. Rutherford first split the atom at Manchester University in one of the university labs there, all this is part of my context and history, and our history, all of it is embedded in the paintings.


– And my first ever encounter with a computer was at Manchester, the University a famous pioneer in the field. The machine took up a whole room and we were invited to feed it information on a piece of cardboard; I thought of it as an irrelevance but the sense of its impending relevance was palpable all around.

Note to Self: continue historical context – moving to beginning painting in Florence – art history and life inseparable. The material substance of paint: oil, and pigment, I began from an absolute material beginning.




To do is to make, is to be

I feel that things are beginning to confirm themselves, clarifying the direction of my project – I am beginning to structure the proposal and shall write it up in a post soon.

Jonathan’s Methodology lecture has helped in clarifying some matters that had been going around without anchor, in my mind for a long time, years in fact. One thing, in particular, being the distinction that was made between reflecting in and reflecting on – recognising this distinction is an important step forward in understanding exactly what is going on when I am actually hands-on with the work, as opposed to then considering it afterward. I realise why I write in verse – something akin to poetry – it is because it is only by relaying a stream of consciousness, as a vestige of being in the instance in the making, as its true echo, can I approximate and hope to express the inexpressible – and try to make my work expressive of that within it which is invisible, mute, tacit.

I have always felt a helplessness in being completely unable to articulate the actual instant when the paint is placed upon, touches, the surface support, and even before that when it emerges from its tube or another source. The real making and doing of the painting involves a tacit connection with its invisible and silent inner nature, not just its outer appearance; in other words that which I am intensely aware of in the doing is that the painting is being made, as a coming into being. Making involves material which has special properties adding to the process the dimension of the material’s own nature, its inner life and logic. The painting is driven by me, guided towards an outcome where it is, as far as I am able to understand it, being itself. This eventual self of the painting has an inevitability about it but is never predictable – and this is something I see as a fundamental property of the poetic; it constitutes the essence of both the doing of the painting and of the painting itself; weaving together the painting (verb) as action and the painting (noun) as the outcome.

It goes without saying that my painting requires intense concentration and, for me a kind of hypersensitivity, as if under a spell. The concentration is such that it is also meditative – sometimes I hold my breath as even breathing would break the spell but at the same time I feel extra alive. This is a feeling which Whitman’s poetry can evoke in me – and it is why I keep his writing close to me and quote it often – he has the words for it all, and he addresses everyone. In Whitman the first person, the first person I form speaks for everyone, is universal.

Sensorially the visual is in play in the act of painting but not only the visual – the haptic is too, and the haptic is an even more primal sense than sight. Actually, I also find the fragrance of the paint oil sensual and energising, and when the painting is fully dry there is surface relief which I can touch – and there are other sculptural properties too. As the painter, I mediate all this in the instant of the making, and in so doing get a feeling of complete presence, of all things coming together through me. It is a self-affirmation in which the incredible energy of the whole universe seems to focus in oneself. Actually, I think that this feeling is what an artwork should strive to give out, of itself, when it moves away from its author and has to stand alone in front of its audience. The sense of the unbounded instant I am talking about, the absolute present is unbounded; timeless and ageless it holds the latent potential for anything and everything. The feeling of it is perhaps the closest I can get to grasping why I exist at all, why we exist, why anything exists.

I have to draw on the whole of myself to understand the painting as if it were alive (I made it so) and to fully empathise with it – so it follows that it is programmed to be an agent empathetic with regard to its eventual audience – that is to say, in speaking for myself I speak for you too.  To my mind, the work must constitute a statement of commonality, this is my intention – its intention. As Whitman wrote, When I give I give myself.

– taken from Song of Myself, Section 40:

In trying to clarify my idea, by cultivating the painting field, the support is as a Petri dish – for culturing thought, embodying idea in such a way as to render the material and immaterial components not only inseparable but in constant dynamic exchange and counterflow in all directions – across and into the picture plane – in terms of the architecture of the painting this is one of the ways in which I create the sense of depth.

The word poiesis means to make and it is also the root of the word poetry/poem.

In the painting I conflate painting and poem through a consideration of the material nature of that which I am working with, making the painting as the poem. The painting is in effect the thought itself of the work as it was being made, translated into tangible form – this is my subject matter, the subject matter I have arrived at after over half a lifetime of intense reflection living with my work in such a way as to not separate it from the other aspects of life.

In consideration of the above I have invented a word for what I see as happening when the painting os being made, the word being PICTOPOIESIS – this word, a word that, like the paintings, I have also made perhaps represents the best fulcrum around which I can affirm, reflect on and build on, the inner architecture of my work. The project will be both a demonstration and an unfolding of my painting that will also move towards its better clarification.

The paintings themselves will determine the rhythm and timescale of the project – it can’t be otherwise as working with the medium, oil in my case, sets its own agenda in which drying times, studio temperatures (both for me and the paint), light conditions etc all come in to play – and at this time of year days are rather too short. As I shall be keeping detailed photographic records of the work, the light conditions are also important – I know I am against the odds but that is normal for me, in fact, limitations, as long as they are not oppressive, have always made me feel the greatest freedom to invent – and an artwork is always an invention.

So, my principal dialogue will be with my medium, my dear old collaborative friend from the start, which I know too well to ever turn away from – and alongside that I shall develop a strand parallel and complementary using the digital, in which the images captured as we go will be adopted and translated into something that will help to unfold the narrative of the painting – its geology, archeology, botany, biology, anthropology, cosmology… as much as it can contain all these elemnents and as far as all these things can be assimilated, filtered and distilled into painting/pictorial form.

When I look again at the header image, a detail of the painting at the stage it is now, it reminds me of a fabric – it has often been said that my paintings look as though they are made of fabric, so for some etymology (by which the fabric of words is woven).

I include the etymology of a few more words which people have been used in connection with my paintings to point to some properties of the paintings which were unintentional but which inform me further. Over the years I have reflected on all the things which have been said in response to my work and I shall recall some of them as I go.




  • and I also want to mention here the Italian word tessitura (for which the closest translation into English would be texture) though tessitura signifies much more than texture – in English tessitura is associated with music but also, I feel, applies to my painting – in terms of understanding the painting’s ‘weave’.  I remember here that I began painting in Italy and this is reflected in aspects of my relationship with it…and this reminds me, time to start writing about the autobiographical background to my work and the historical context, which in my case, has now become manifold from the perspective of living in today’s digital world that has come about as a result of such rapid and unprecedented change.


and now the painting is calling me