James Faure Walker: Works in Progress

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James Faure Walker


Front cover: ‘Rubicon’, 2007, oil on canvas, 173 x 244 cms


Detail of ‘Red, Drawn’, 1995, oil on canvas, 170 x 305 cms


James Faure Walker Works in Progress

‘Works in Progress, Extracts from a Catalogue: Thoughts on Five Decades of Painting’

James Faure Walker

1 Looking Back In 2005 there was an exhibition at the Bloomberg Space in London called ‘1979’, of artists considered prominent in that year. I was one of the chosen. I was able to show all fifteen feet of ‘Lazy Afternoons’. It had been in the Hayward Annual of that year, and had not been seen since. I did not mind being labelled a ‘seventies artist’; but I did not feel that that was the real me. In 1979 I was still a work in progress. I hadn’t even tried working with a computer. Part of me would prefer to leave the past behind – more than five decades of painting so far. My attention is really on recent paintings, their problems, how to take them further. If I look back I hope and pray that I have gradually improved. I am aware that my opinions change, and what looks brilliant one day can look utterly dreadful a week later. My memory is probably unreliable, editing out inconvenient truths.


I had been looking through old paintings in racks in my studio, wondering what story they told. Some I had quite forgotten: a carefully made wooden replica of a London Transport litter bin, in blue, was from my Diploma Show at St Martins in 1970. It has acquired some unintended significance because of IRA activity in London in the ‘Litter’, 1970, wood and oil paint

1970’s, litter-bins, the perfect hidingplaces for a bomb, were removed from Underground stations. Other exhibits in that show included conventional views from windows, and one called ‘Painting a Painting’. Some tutors marked me low because they thought I was not taking painting seriously. I lacked direction. They may have been right. If that was my Duchamp period, it didn’t last. As I shall explain, I was fortunate to have been at St Martins at that time. What I am most grateful for is that the experience left me with an appetite for learning more. I found I could cope with uncertainty. Whatever art was, and whatever it might mean to be an artist, I knew it would be far removed from the dreary lessons where you are taught a ‘skill’. (There were evening classes still going on at St Martins, where an ancient tutor brought in an ‘interesting object’ to draw: a cello one week, a dripping sheep’s head the next). This was different. You were out there on your own. You saw what conceptual artists were up to; Michael Fried, the leading critic of New York’s new painting, introduced us to Morris Louis’ veils of stained green and violet. You were there to get confused, to react, to get torn apart, to pick your way through the maze of competing doctrines,


‘Lazy Afternoons’, 1979, oil on canvas, 170 x 488 cms

and somehow come out whole. I felt uneducated, ignorant of art history. In 1968 I hitch-hiked to Florence, and spent hours drawing in the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. The following year I was in Paris in the summer, flat-sitting for a lecturer at the Sorbonne (the brother of a St Martins tutor), and again spent day after day in the Louvre. I felt I was missing out on the philosophy, the art history I might have absorbed at a university. At that time art schools were seen as inferior to universities, alternatives for rebellious souls. Although I knew this was not the case, it did get under my skin. I managed to get a place at the Royal College of Art, not in the Painting Department, but in General Studies, called ‘MA by Thesis’, reading up about aesthetics and criticism. I was painting views from my West Hampstead flat, studio paintings.


At St Martins I had tried everything: welded steel, expressionist life painting, installation, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism. In 1970 Conceptual Art was pressing the case to go ‘beyond’ painting. These ‘studio’ paintings were in part my reaction. I was starting again. They were about looking - the window, the frame, the distancing – and optics. I was retreating to the conventional format of foreground, middle distance, background: academic, ‘1979’ at the Bloomberg Space, Finsbury Square. ‘Lazy Afternoons’ on the right, with works by Bert Irvin, Nicholas Pope and Garth Evans

with a touch of Surrealism. (In 1988 I was to revisit the view-through-the-window device, as part of the ‘Artists in National Parks’ commission. More of that later.) I was no stranger to Conceptual Art. I had executed three separate wall drawings for Sol Le Witt; the most elaborate was at the ICA in 1969 for ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, the first major exhibition of Conceptual Art in Britain. I knew about the disappearance of the art object, the dematerialisation of art, the end of painting. I was sceptical, on the sidelines. I contributed an essay, tongue in cheek, saying as much, to the Lisson Gallery’s ‘Wall Show’ catalogue of 1970. I was setting off in a different direction. I was rediscovering what painting could do.


Detail of ‘Painting a Painting’, 1969, 148 x 148 cm, ink on canvas

2 Beginnings


From the age of five I had learned to manage watercolour washes, at an oldfashioned primary school, Dumbrell’s, in Ditchling, Sussex. I was taught how to make vanishing points in perspective, and how to design patterns. I was soon painting galleons, country lanes with overhanging trees, and fighter jets in a painting-by-numbers set. When I was nine, I was given a set of oil paints. I loved the smell of linseed, the brushes, the dipper clipped to the palette. I copied the examples in the Rowney’s guide, and everything in Oliver Warner’s ‘British Marine Painting’, which my brother had won as an art prize at school. I would not have known what ‘Art’ was, apart from being a lesson in school. I hadn’t been to an art gallery. In the fifties, ‘Modern Art’ was treated as a joke. I remember an artist riding a bicycle over a canvas on the BBC’s ‘Tonight’. (Bert Irvin told me, years later, that it was Brian Green). When I was away at boarding school, I began to win art prizes. I thought others had more talent, especially in depicting cars. I won a drawing prize where most of the other entrants were considerably older. I went on school trips to exhibitions, and, remarkably, we had talks by visiting artists, one of whom, Bernard Cohen, was to become a lifelong friend (he

remembered being floored by a precocious young questioner going on about Braque). In the early ‘sixties I saw the Hockney shows at the Kasmin Gallery, Kinetic Art at Signals, Caro, Frink, Tilson, and so on. All this was before I started at St Martins in 1966, when I was seventeen. I ended up at St Martins because I mistakenly thought it was in a tree-lined square. The prospectus was a slim glossy booklet, black and white, and promised treasures in a different world. St Martins, even in the Pre-Diploma year, was the ideal place to discover what art could be: so much freedom, so much information, all sorts of possibilities, and, for want of a better word, creativity. I would have chats with Tony Caro in the pub, spend time on the roof with Richard Long, who had made trays to catch the rain and look at reflections. I was passed from tutor to tutor because I flitted about without settling on one technique. Once or twice a tutor complained that I did too much work, or that I answered back. I applied to the painting department for the next year, and was relieved to get in. There was still a requirement to produce life drawings. Drawing was seen as the gold standard. There was an older,

sometimes embittered generation, and for them anything after Sickert was part of the ‘modern’ conspiracy. They would show you how Cubism was a trick: you imposed a life-drawing made from one side of the studio over another made from the other side. In comparison, the sculpture department was go-ahead, and much more rigorous. For a term I transferred, overseen by William Tucker and Alan Gouk. Every week there was a ‘sculpture forum’ for the whole sculpture school. These were extraordinary; everyone from Tony Caro to the newest student was put under the spotlight and, if necessary, torn apart. Visitors ranged from Edward de Bono (of ‘lateral thinking’ fame), to conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Victor Burgin. All the same, I was not sure that sculpture was my thing. I had more of a connection with Turner than with the new sculpture. I spent time drawing in Leon Kossoff’s studio, amidst the charcoal dust and intense silence. I now realise that his method of empathizing with the model came from Bomberg’s teaching. (I confess, there are periods of Kossoff’s and Auerbach’s that I relish, but Bomberg leaves me cold.) I was again undecided. I had long conversations about Duchamp

with Jon Thompson (who later became the major figure at Goldsmiths) and coproduced the magazine ‘Jam’; it included one of the first published works of Gilbert and George. What gets forgotten about the origins of Conceptual Art is the tense but friendly atmosphere. There was goodhumoured to-ing and fro-ing. At one forum Richard Long claimed he had walked down Greek Street and it was a sculpture. Caro laughed and said, ‘if that’s a sculpture I’m a Dutchman’. The painting school was laissez-faire: there was watered-down ‘modern’ figurative, and some hard-edge abstraction imitating the look of the new American painting. You could do your own thing, which was fine, but you could feel rudderless. There were excellent lecturers: Aaron Scharf on photography, Ray Durgnat on film, Charles Harrison of ‘Studio’ magazine, at the time enthusiastic about Noland, later a member of Art and Language. Before art schools were absorbed into universities, ‘complementary studies’ was an add-on. Instead of a degree you received a Dip AD. Little written work was required. I wrote my thesis overnight, more or less. All of this is to explain why I came to work at home, painting that view from the

‘Jam’ magazine, St Martins 1969, cover by Glynn Boyd Harte, edited by James Faure Walker and Jon Thompson

window from a flat in West Hampstead, and why I ended up as a student at the RCA, but not in the Painting School. I didn’t think I would get in on the basis of my painting, though I had already won an award at the Stowells painting competition, judged by Hockney. I had much to learn, but my desire to get on with painting only increased. At the RCA I was bored out of my mind in seminars, spending my time looking at shadows made by a chair, and the gorgeously decorated façade of the Royal College of Organists next door. 15

3 Views from the Studio Window


Several studio paintings were indebted to the ‘metaphysical’ genre of Morandi, de Chirico, Magritte, and also Richard Hamilton. I was fascinated by metaphysical philosophy, from Spinoza, to Schopenhauer, to Bradley. I was reading large chunks. My thesis at the RCA ended up being on eighteenthcentury aesthetics. I spent many days in the V & A library reading original editions, including the eccentric theorist, the Revd Archibald Alison. His 1790 ‘Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste’ examined how associations affect perception. Was the colour purple inherently funereal? Was the sharp crack of the musket more sublime when the militia was training, or only when someone was being executed? This problem of direct experience versus association preoccupied me. It connected with the production values of Conceptual Art, hygienically white and defiantly association-free. My thesis did not go down well at the RCA. I was initially failed, because the staff, with the exception of Hans Brill, the librarian, dismissed it as irrelevant and pointless. This was a blow. I could not understand why they thought that I had done anything wrong-headed. It was first-hand original research and I had worked fanatically

hard. The rejection hurt, but taught me something useful: art intellectuals of that time, puffing away on their pipes, leather patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets, Jean-Paul Sartre in their pockets, were not always keen on having their ideas debated. Tolerance, open-mindedness, well…there were limits. This was a formative lesson. I realised that being committed to making paintings of any consequence could mean working outside the approval of academia. Two mentalities in conflict: the lawyer, attached to rules, to precedent, to history, to the right way of doing things, controlled by the texts; versus the anarchic child, playful, disruptive, awkward, wild, egocentric, without respect for elders. I had a bit of both in my make-up. What confused me as a student was that you could act out these roles in an art school without facing a real test. Art school ‘philosophers’ could come across as subversive types, while never missing an opportunity to climb the academic ladder; on the other side, categorised as ‘practice’, actually a demeaning term , you could get away with calling yourself ‘an artist’ – or better, ‘an international artist’- because most students wouldn’t risk asking you for the evidence. Am I being unfair? Probably, ‘Studio Still Life, Golf’, 1971, oil on board, 52 x 69 cms


and I have been guilty, on occasion, of embellishing the CV. But I do recall one revealing instance when I was a student at the RCA: one such artist-turnedphilosopher on the staff, very prominent, was supposed to give a presentation at a seminar where each of us had taken turns to present our developing thesis. Several of us had the reputation of provoking ferocious arguments – much to the dismay of the staff, who preferred more polite conversation. At the appointed time, we waited, and waited, but the eminent figure didn’t show up. There was no apology, no excuse, just a tacit understanding: it was his way of saving face, and was never mentioned, either then or later.


From 1972 to 2014 I taught part-time in more than forty different colleges, from teacher training colleges to prestigious postgraduate courses, and in the USA, France, Germany, China, Australia as well as the UK. I have been everything from a humble IT technician, to an artist-inresidence, a fill-in, a Reader, a Research Fellow. I taught in art history, painting, textiles, basic drawing, computing, and supervised PhDs. From the seventies on I was sending out application forms week after week, without much success, and if I did get to the interview stage, and go on to ‘From the Studio I’, 1970, oil on board, 38 x 52 cms ‘From the Studio II’, 1970, oil on board, 45 x 53 cms

get the job, it would be a modest position, such as at a teacher-training college, or a B-Tech course. I was almost forty before I got a job teaching painting regularly in an art school. My experiences at St Martins and the RCA – very different institutions, the former adventurous, the latter a bit sleepy, aspiring to be an Oxford college – meant that I was familiar with the peculiarities of art school hierarchies. And part-time staff were expendable, especially during the summer break. One college communicated this to me by letter: ‘we envision a period where you will be self-sufficient’. At a northern college in 1985 I was called in after a year teaching art history. I was told I was to be ‘let go’. My approach was, I was told, insufficiently intellectual1. Oh, by the way, I said, could you please fill in this reference for me. I handed over a sheet of paper with a red embossed crest. I had been short-listed for the post of Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art. I didn’t get the job, but my ego was purring.


‘Untitled’, 1972, oil on canvas, 183 x 170 cms

4 Abstract Painting Besieged


In the seventies it became the thing to disparage ‘Modernism’ as a whole. That ‘ism’ made you appear more sophisticated than the philistine who hated modern art and modern architecture. ‘Modernism’ made it sound like a concerted movement, a bunch of manifestos and theories. Added to this was this habitual deference to the past, to traditions that persist long after they have any purpose. On several occasions I have taken American friends – some have been established artists - to the Royal Academy, the Royal College of Art, or the Royal Watercolour Society, and realised they were in awe of that ‘Royal’. Controversies that erupted here were unimaginable in New York, Paris, Berlin, or Sydney. In 1976 the tabloids had screaming headlines about the Tate’s ‘bricks’ - Carl Andre’s floor sculpture, ‘Equivalent VIII’. The Tate curators’ defence was lukewarm, and critics who till then had been avant-gardists seized the opportunity to become supporters of ‘the people’ against the ‘elitism’ of modernism. Whichever side you were on, it was dispiriting. Where was the belief in art itself as something worthwhile? One book, very much of that time, was titled ‘Art, the Enemy of the People’. Day-

to-day survival as an artist was one thing - working part-time to pay the studio rent - but you didn’t expect this overt hostility, this loss of nerve by progressive critics, seemingly by the Art Establishment itself. Several of my closest colleagues emigrated to the USA, Canada, Australia, to happier climes. Abstract painting was singled out for the attacks, and in turn it was doggedly defended by hard-line abstractionists. Figurative painters had their factions too, and they felt overlooked. There was disenchantment with the remnants of sixties optimism, the clean-cut primary colours. One anthology of new painting - dark and brooding – called this backwardlooking taste ‘Gothic’. Some critics yearned for the restoration of Old Master styles. Postmodernism was supposed to be openminded, pluralistic, a free-for-all, without ideology, but it proved to be just as intolerant. Galleries became immense and powerful; money flowed, collectors were in charge. Critics who thought it should all be about quality rather than PR were ignored. The ‘Open’ shows, at the Whitechapel and at the Serpentine, fizzled out. Instead, a new generation of students were advised to be streetwise entrepreneurs. The market ruled.

5 Conceptual Art While a student I had worked for Sol Le Witt. I had been to New York in 1972, and while there had sat in on an interview with Robert Morris. I had worked on installing ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ at the ICA in 1969. I had met and talked with many of the participants - lending Robert Smithson my eraser at one point. I was unconvinced by what they wrote, which struck me as deliberately obscure. All the same, it made me think. Conceptual Art relied on a particular look as much as it relied on any intellectual foundation. There was much imitation of Wittgenstein, playing with language, but that was for appearance. There was little intellectual curiosity. Painting was airily dismissed as ‘playing with paint’, as ‘colour art’. How did that happen? Some would say it was the painters’ own fault that they could be seen this way - the inarticulate genius, leaving the theory to the catalogue essay. Painters were perceived as instinctive and primitive yokels. It was up to the critic, the connoisseur, to do the explaining. Howard Hodgkin once told me, at one of Bryan Robertson’s famous gettogethers, that at a formal dinner while an artist-in-residence in Oxford, a Professor had leaned over to him and said, ‘you are very intelligent for an artist’. Interestingly,

when the first issues of ‘Artscribe’ came out in 1976 – and it was produced independently by artists - the culturati were mostly at a loss, just a few disdainful swipes here and there. One exception was Bryan Robertson, who became an enthusiastic supporter of what we were trying to do.


6 Origins of ‘Artscribe’


In 1971 I was looking for a larger studio than the small room in the flat. I ended up renting a large area with SPACE at 10 Martello Street, in Hackney. SPACE had been founded by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgley in 1968 at St Katherine’s Dock. When that had to be given up at short notice, the salvaged fluorescent tubes were thrown down lift shafts and ended up at Martello Street and Stepney Green. Martello Street had been stripped of plumbing and wiring by thieves who were after the copper. We had to build the studio walls from scratch. The ethos was that of a collective, with communal areas full of inflatables – even for a while, Bruce Lacey’s Vampire Jet fuselage. It was just off London Fields. There were parallel ventures: the AIR Gallery, the ACME Gallery and its artists’ housing scheme. The spaces were large, industrial and cold. They were cheap, and readily available; few painters wanted that kind of working area. Through Martello Street I got to know others there: Robin Klassnik, Gary Wragg, Ian McKeever, Michael Porter, Roger Bates, Noel Forster, Genesis P. Orridge and Bruce Lacey, and we often met for lunch. There was a wider circle, including Bert Irvin at Stepney, Bill Henderson and Trevor Sutton in Camden Town, Peter Rippon and Ben

Jones at the studios that later made way for the British Library at St Pancras. Along with Ben Jones and two others, I helped set up ‘Artscribe’. After the first year, I became the editor, and remained there for eight years. This period saw the emergence of ‘Social Art’; those critics who had been all for ‘going beyond painting’ now calling for a return to the more conventional painting styles of Social Realism. They were now attacking Modernism. In retrospect, it is striking that at that time there were groups of critics who really saw themselves as leading the way, dismissing what they saw in front of them in exhibitions, instead advocating some idealized form of art that existed only in theory. ‘Artscribe’s readership grew because our magazine sought to represent what artists were actually up to, the full range from performance to uptight realist painting. We weren’t preaching, telling artists what they should be doing. We brought together a broad spectrum of opinion, a new generation of artists and writers that included Stuart Morgan, Timothy Hyman, Matthew Collings, Adrian Searle, Terence Maloon, David Sweet, Andrea Hill, Lynne Cooke, Alexis Hunter, Richard Alston, Alan Gouk, Vivien Knight, Richard Wentworth, Richard Deacon, Paul Neagu and others who went on to great things.


‘Artscribe’ No. 1, 1976, cover by Bert Irvin


‘Artscribe’ No. 13, 1978, cover by Alexis Hunter

‘Artscribe’ No. 12, 1978, cover by Duggie Fields

‘Artscribe’ No. 24, 1980, cover by Basil Beattie

‘Artscribe’ No. 27, 1981, cover, survey results


‘Artscribe’ No. 15, 1978, cover by Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce

‘Artscribe’ No. 40, 1983, cover by Graham Crowley

‘Artscribe’ No. 32, 1981, cover by Richard Bosman

‘Artscribe’ No. 14, 1978, cover by Michael Craig-Martin

7 Absorbing Minimalism


We had an Open Studio at Martello Street, quite a new idea for 1973, and through that I came to exhibit ‘Pale Green’ at Artist’s Market. The gallery was run by Vera Russell and her assistant Norman Rosenthal. It was in Earlham Street, Covent Garden. My paintings were in a booth between Roger Hilton and Terry Frost. Despite my reservations I was under the sway of minimal art, keeping the brush marks mechanical, the lines ruled against aluminium templates. The paint was clean and anonymous, everything exposed. The method had been taken much further, not only by Sol Le Witt and his colleagues, but by the Systems Artists in Europe. I remember Vera saying she respected their rigour, their conviction. I couldn’t agree. I preferred the improvised, the fallible, the lyrical. Too much certainty makes me think of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Strict adherence to that latter-day Constructivism would have outlawed any splashy accidentals, any half-hidden imagery, any illusionistic space. In my case, I allowed all of that to creep in, with hints of luminosity. It was the pull of the English landscape, the semi-abstract lyricism of Ivon Hitchens, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson – and also that of atmospheric watercolour. I was aware that this held something back, looked reserved, you could even say timid, compared with the full-on blast of American painting; but there was little point in being a provincial imitator. My roots were here.


‘Pale Green’, 1973, oil on canvas, 163 x 179 cms

8 The ICA Conference


Doctrines on their own, modernist or otherwise, did not count as much as the experience of seeing paintings first-hand. I saw how the space in front of a Newman or Still, projecting or radiating from it, could work on the spectator. I had seen de Kooning, Stella, and others in exhibitions in London, but it was the sheer scale and confidence of New York painting at MOMA that was the real challenge: the flattenedout picture plane, defiantly being nothing but ‘itself’. How could you go back in history to the vague and allusive stew of past styles, back to undisciplined and freeform abstraction? That was my dilemma. What infuriated the anti-modernists was the all-grey monochrome. It denied everything ‘human’. All this came to a head in 1978, in a packed conference at the ICA, ‘The Crisis in British Art’. I was called in at the last minute, replacing John Hoyland, to speak on behalf of ‘Formalist Modernism’. I wasn’t sure what that was, and probably would not have agreed with it, but someone had to hold the line against what I saw as arrant philistinism. Modernism was in the dock, and that just wasn’t right.

It was an ordeal. I was making the case for tolerance, for the open spirit of modern painting in all its variety, amidst all this vengeful hostility. I had a couple of days to prepare a speech, and worked on it through the nights. There were angry voices on every side, but it was hard to find a common cause. Was this the revolt of the neglected and put-upon figurative painters? Was it conceptual art relaunched as hard-core ideology? Marxist? Feminist? There were calls for stern Social Realism, Mexican-style murals on railway bridges, for life drawing, for English neoromantics rising up against American cultural imperialism. Modernism was to blame: here was something we could blame without fear of reprisals, we could sneer and ridicule its pretensions, without exposing our own shortcomings, a shot of well-earned self-righteousness, adrenaline for the jaded art world.

If there was logic to these grievances, it was convoluted. Attacks on elitism came from the editor of ‘Studio’, and well-placed insiders, critics and curators, usually more at home round the Arts Council Committee table. They had the connections to put on ‘Social Art’ shows at the top-drawer galleries of the Serpentine and the Whitechapel. ‘Studio’s cover price was some ten times that of ‘Artscribe’. It was not the voice of the dispossessed. Even among the organizers of the debates the alliances soon broke up – highbrow conceptualists, populists, rugged muralists, they had little in common. For the next few years our magazine not only survived but prospered. ‘Studio’, not surprisingly, faltered and collapsed. And as has happened before amongst those who point the way to the future, the strident voices of the Left in time moderated their tone, and found a welcoming new home on the Right.


9 Writing Reviews


The first review I wrote was of David Novros, for ‘Studio International’ in 1974. The longer of the two ‘Untitled’ paintings of 1974 reproduced here was influenced by Novros’ close-toned rectangles, the chalky pastel shades interlocking in a relaxed manner. I almost always used oil paint, and for a while I used Roberson’s oils, including Paris’ Marble Medium, a wax mixture – advertised as being used for the murals in South Africa House. Amidst the austerity of minimal art Novros provided appealing harmony, elegant balance. That year ‘Artforum’ ran an influential article by Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe on Brice Marden, Novros’ friend. I had also seen Diebenkorn’s loose-limbed painting at the Marlborough Gallery. As for my own work, I was a sponge, looking at new exhibitions several times a week.

Looking back, many of us saw abstract painting in terms of taking a stand: each school of thought defined itself against some opposing position, real or imagined. The grid, rectangles, the flat surface, these gave me a sense of direction. Gradually, I relaxed the control and became more playful. The pictures retained the frontal tension. These were busy years. My first teaching jobs were part-time in art history, first at Coventry in 1972, the home of Art and Language. There were lectures to prepare. For the next few years I was travelling miles out from London on early morning trains to different colleges and polytechnics. There was also all the work involved in launching ‘Artscribe’.


‘Untitled’, 1974, oil on canvas, 127 x 356 cms


‘Untitled’, 1974, oil on canvas, 152 x 102 cms


‘Portsmouth’, 1977, oil on canvas, 102 x 204 cms

10 The ‘Hayward Annual’


Aside from the polemics of painting styles, and the practicalities of producing the magazine, I was also living a life, with all the trials that can involve. I realized I needed something from painting that was missing, something emotional and tender, softer, more responsive. When I looked, it just wasn’t there. Gradually, the rectangles melted away. In their place came loose brushing, improvised forms, translucency, evocative greens, blues and mauves. I was not on my own. Other painters were moving in the same direction. I was registering what was emerging in studios and galleries; abstract painters were finding new ways of being free, gestural, anarchic even, and in the case of Gary Wragg and Bill Henderson, verging on the psychedelic. By 1977 I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. The only way forward was the next day’s work in the studio. I wrote an essay in 1978 – the ‘Artscribe’ cover was by Noel Forster – entitled ‘Fertile Forms’, a phrase lifted from Rosenberg’s essay on Miro2. I had also been looking at French nineteenth-century painting in Paris; Monet of course, but also Delacroix, whose studio museum I visited. Out of the blue I was asked to be part of the 1979 ‘Hayward Annual’ as a selector/ exhibitor, even though no-one had seen

my new paintings. ‘Artscribe’ had become widely read and was now well on the way to supplanting ‘Studio’. When it came to the exhibition, my section was criticized for being incompetent, unoriginal, and generally sloppy. In part this was payback, and rival magazines had their say. ‘Artscribe’ had shredded several prominent critics’ reputations. We were seen as thirtysomething upstarts, as promoting ourselves. One review, pointing out we couldn’t draw, said we were not even up to the level of an art school final show. One exception to the general hostility was the novelist, David Storey, who in the Sunday Times singled out my own work (along with Jennifer Durrant’s) as following on from the tradition of Turner3 - ‘diaphanous abstractions’. That was two years later, and I was delighted that there were some sympathetic reviews. Peter Fuller in ‘Artforum’ wrote a review spun from his supposedly leftish but somewhat mystical theory that Modernism had become nothing more than an expression of the market, empty of any other meaning; somehow or other painting could be revived, become soulful again through stirring up ‘moments of becoming’. With the hectoring intonations of a preacher he dismissed Conceptual Art, artists using photography, realists and formalists, yet

he praised the abstract painting section, Wragg and Durrant in particular; my work received a pass mark, though ‘Artscribe’ was described as a ‘wretched milieu’4. The distinction between ‘formalist’ and ‘authentic’ has continued to divide opinion, sometimes favouring the gestural, sometimes the flat and the decorative. It is driven by willfully ignoring context, intention, history – everything, in other words, but the critic’s own agenda.


‘Hayward Annual 1979’, with paintings by Jennifer Durrant, Bruce Russell and James Faure Walker

11 ‘Lazy Afternoons’ and ‘Heron Island’ ‘Lazy Afternoons’, shown in the Hayward exhibition, was fifteen feet wide. I chose the title - a cool jazz standard - because it contradicted the way it had been made. I had been neurotic and anxious: emptyheaded relaxation was what I was after. It was exhibited again in the 2005 exhibition called ‘1979’ at the Bloomberg Space, about key paintings made that year5 . I was pleased. I had always thought my earlier prominence was unjustified; I was only asked to be in the Hayward show because of editing ‘Artscribe’. Bryan Robertson, a remarkable critic and supporter of several of us, advised me to keep an inch gap between the two panels. Looking back, I wonder how it was that such a painting, surely pleasurable at least in intention, could have provoked such antipathy. Both Bill Henderson and Jenny Durrant’s paintings, incidentally, were acquired by the Tate.


In 1983 I left the world of editing and writing. I had been contemplating the escape for some time. Every Sunday morning I received phone calls from artists and their friends suggesting it was time they had a feature devoted to them. Some sent substantial cheques in the post. Galleries would complain about a review that cast doubt on their pet genius. Artists Detail of ‘Lazy Afternoons’, 1979, oil on canvas, 170 x 488 cms

who, in interviews, came across as seekers after truth, would see nothing inconsistent about altering what they had been recorded saying. Behind the scenes, I saw the less attractive side of the artist’s ego. What was published in ‘Artscribe’ could influence an artist’s career. At the same time the magazine’s credibility in the art world depended on it being seen as independent: its contributors needed to be seen as having integrity; it was not just a platform for one tendency in painting, or worse, an outlet for the platitudes of gallery press releases. As an artist myself I could be put in an awkward position. And doubtless a few times I was seen as a soft touch – a few words here and there and so-and-so could get an ecstatic review. Particularly galling was the knock on the studio door, the request for me to stop work and come and get a preview of a neighbour’s efforts. Whether I was impressed or not, whether I agreed with what a reviewer had submitted, all this was beside the point. We had to represent a wide range of opinion and argument, some at odds with each other; the criticism offered had to be arrived at freely. That was the whole idea. I don’t think the magazine would have achieved the success it did if we hadn’t shown we were to some extent independent spirits.

Could I have stayed on in that role of writing and editing, and at the same time painting? Was the power seductive? Corrupting even? Yes and no. Certainly, when I left, I could find I was Mr Invisible at private views. If I had stayed on I would either have become unbearably selfimportant, deeply disillusioned, or both. Most critics I have known end up soured by the pressures. However, the ‘New Spirit in Painting’ exhibition at the RA in 1981 was to shift that balance. Power and influence lay with the superstar curator, the collector, the dealer; the glitz, and public relations, smothered any critical feedback. It did not mean the art on show was any better or worse – it was more exciting, scandalous and newsworthy certainly – but the critic’s opinion didn’t matter. Early in 1983 I was phoned at the studio and invited to meet an Australian painter at the Chelsea Arts Club. I demurred because I did not know where that club was, and I was busy with a painting. The caller, Jeff Makin, said it might be worth my while. I went along, and found myself sitting next to Laurie Lee, who liked his Ruddles beer served in a tray of lukewarm water. After a while Jeff asked whether I would like to go to Australia. I said yes, but that was way beyond what I could afford. He said

that could be taken care of. I ended up as an artist-in-residence in Melbourne, and undertook a lecture tour including Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, Canberra, Ballarat. My ambition was to get to the Barrier Reef.

you glimpse is camouflaged, flitting here and there to find prey, to escape. All you get are flashes of stripes.

The painting ‘Heron Island’ was the result, and this was another turning point. It upended my ideas of what a painting could do. I found the pecking order in the reef more interesting than the pecking order of the art world - at the time all the bitching in Sydney was about the selection process for the Biennale. Diving in the reef led eventually to another type of immersion, in computer graphics. This requires some explanation. It came to mean a visual experience where you were inside the spectacle, not a detached spectator. I wanted to capture the magic of diving in the Great Barrier Reef. These weren’t the rolling hills of English counties, no nodding trees, misty distances; no quiet moments in the shade to reflect. The reef was a mad kaleidoscope, a choreographed mobile, more battle than ballet. I swam beside Manta Rays, reef sharks, parrotfish, butterfly fish, angelfish; I glided over giant clams, coral everywhere. The surgeonfish was fluorescent, and lethal. I set out to create my own visual record. Photos do not do the experience justice. Every other fish


Detail of ‘Heron Island’, 1984, oil on canvas, 170 x 305 cms



‘Heron Island’, 1984, oil on canvas, 170 x 305 cms

12 Exmoor In 1988 I was one of the artists commissioned in the ‘Artists in National Parks’ project, shown at the V&A. Again, I was lucky. I chose Exmoor and worked alongside Tony Eyton. I went for long walks, drawing and photographing. I wondered how I could condense what I saw into one image. A bird’s eye view? A kestrel’s? The view from the hotel in Lynton was one solution. I remember a conversation with a German postgraduate student at the Royal College. He challenged my idea that the eye was innocent. Straight landscape painting was caught up in that delusion. It was naïve, debased, just nostalgia. Everything we looked at we saw through the screen of ‘representation’, the stereotypes of TV and mass media. All we could do was deconstruct and interrogate. Take a postcard and rework it perhaps. This was the advice of a postmodernist. On the one hand, anything goes; on the other, follow the programme.


‘Valley House Hotel’, 1987, oil on canvas, 91 x 114 cms

I was in two minds. What would count as the authentic experience of this wild landscape? Could you capture the soul of a place from just one vantage point? Tony Eyton had chosen a beauty spot, the Tarr Steps – with some irony, painting the clichéd picture postcard view. I went for the synthesis, culminating in a ten-foot painting, worked on back in the studio. I hoped the painting would itself have some presence, the equivalent of being in that place. I never tire of finding detail in ‘The Hay Wain’. I don’t think of it as a snapshot of Willy Lott’s Cottage. Connections with remembered places don’t have to be literal. Both Patrick Heron and Howard Hodgkin played with the elusive and the allusive. You can leave passages loose, ambiguous and unresolved. If you over-interpret there is nothing left for the spectator. For the Exmoor painting I did include, half-hidden, a kestrel, and an RAF Tornado making a low-level run over the heather.


‘Exmoor, Study 1’, 1987, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 cms

Works from the 80s and 90s

‘Heron Island Study’, 1984, oil on canvas, 170 x 213 cms


‘Wednesday’, 1985, oil on canvas, 170 x 274 cms

‘Planting Onions’, 1986, oil on canvas, 170 x 274 cms

‘Friends’, 1988, oil on canvas, 213 x 173 cms

‘Red, Redone’, 1988, oil on canvas, 91 x 114 cms


‘Night Song’, 1989, composite inkjet print, 50 x 40 cms

‘Pink’, 1994, oil on canvas, 170 x 305 cms

‘Colour and Drawing: From a Garden Table’, 1998, inkjet print, 81 x 56 cms

13 Discovering Computer Graphics To convey how it felt the first time I could ‘paint’ using a computer, I need to erase from my mind everything that happened subsequently. The computers considered ‘advanced’ in 1988 are now dusty antiques. At the time they were certainly not ‘userfriendly’. You had to read the manual, which might be a flow-chart on the wall. However, I could draw in colour, fat lines of yellow over blue, albeit only eight colours. It was slow, and there was just a handful of effects on the menu. But for me it was magic.


I began with an Apple II, with the DOS interface, and with the Image Artist programme, which had no ‘undo’. When I bought my own computer and printer (Amiga 500 plus Xerox 4020 inkjet) I was won over. In 1988 I was absorbed in the ‘Artists in National Parks’ commission. I worked on the landscape in daylight, and on tiny computer pictures in the evening. I learned several tricks from the paint programmes, using them in the painting, such as calibrating tiny shifts in tone. In ‘real’ painting you unconsciously stretch tonal intervals. I learned how to modify the ‘brush’ so as to control the whole space: a multi-coloured brush could weave a compelling texture. The downside of working with such a simulation was that

‘real’ painting in the studio felt less malleable, less responsive. It was frustrating that you couldn’t get a ‘printout’ that corresponded with what you saw on the screen. That problem would soon be solved. How to link a process that used paint on canvas with the freedom of working on the screen? This was way before laptops, digital cameras or digital projectors were commonplace. There were two solutions: one was to play with the shapes on the screen, treating the graphics as a mind gym, training you to be flexible and to think fast; the second was to fabricate direct connections. I designed and printed stencils. These could take days to cut out with a scalpel: it was fiddly work, but it yielded results. Slowing the process right down - translating the detail into passages of paint - helped. When, by 2005, I had both a digital camera and a projector, I appreciated the short cuts. When you use watercolour every day you become sensitised to anything vaporous; you study cloud formations, wetness in the atmosphere, reflections in lakes. Something similar happens with paint software: you see the upward growth of trees in the park as an algorithm – go up,

divide, go up… In the 1990’s I was using photo panels in paintings. Instead of a recessive space, these ‘windows’ floated up to the surface. Microsoft ‘Windows’ didn’t exist in the early eighties, nor did the seethrough layers of Photoshop. Painting is an art form with straightforward constraints – the frame, the stillness, the flat surface – and these survive each little revolution. The conventions are elastic, but only stretch so far. New gadgets transform studio tasks. A scrap of cardboard on the ground snapped in the morning can be incorporated into a digital ‘drawing’ within minutes, and fitted into a large painting by lunchtime. For this to work, you need to be well-versed in digital tools, just as the pianist’s fingers know their way instinctively round the piano keys. But that is not all. You have to be able to improvise, and improvise in the moment. I bought an Apple QuickTake in 1994, one of the first digital cameras available. The higher resolution photos were far below what a camera-phone can manage today, and it could only store eight images. Yet I found it liberating. I could sample the most trivial everyday material. One composite digital picture was made of all the taps I used in a day; others recorded coffee cups, ‘No Parking’ signs, woodworking tools. I

rediscovered the possibilities of still-life, and subjects caught on the move. I have long been in awe of Braque’s interiors, but I often forget how ordinary those objects were: a jug, a newspaper, a lamp, a table. The casual instant photo of the iPhone is taken for granted, but thirty years ago feeding images into a painting so easily was a novelty.


‘Proposition VII, Green’, 1991, composite inkjet print, 76 x 102 cms ‘Bloomsbury’, 1990, inkjet print, 20 x 51 cms


‘Forest Sounds’, 1989, composite inkjet print, 20 x 48 cms


14 ‘Painting the Digital River’ In 2006 ‘Painting the Digital River’, an account of how I came to use computers, was published in the USA6. The publisher’s blurb on the back described it as a painter’s journey. Yes…but. That book was written out of frustration. I felt that the potential of computers in painting was immense, but no-one was paying attention. Today, that does not need to be said. The book put on record the slow processes of assimilation. We forget the extent of resistance, the collective voice of college supremos saying they wanted computers simply to go away. They preferred the phrase ‘new media’ so that the technology could be kept out of the way in a dark laboratory. Members of staff at one art school I taught in proposed – not entirely jokingly – to smash up the computers with baseball bats.


I had begun teaching at the RCA in 1990. My assignment was to introduce fine art students to digital painting. In my book I recounted bizarre encounters with printmaking staff, who wanted me to acknowledge in front of the students that it was not a valid medium. I obliged. It made it sound more interesting. My experiences in the USA and Germany were entirely different. I was head-hunted Cover of ‘Painting the Digital River’, 2006

for a major teaching post. Conferences, with attendant exhibitions – ‘SIGGRAPH’ in the USA, ‘ISEA’ in Canada, Japan, all over Europe – created momentum. Digital Art became a movement, a tech avant-garde. Attendees could be remarkably unaware of what was going on in the mainstream art world, and would assume, for example, that regular painting would become obsolete, and virtual reality and web art would take over. Today, painting rumbles on much as it has always done. No-one worries about digital art taking over. Except that in one sense it has: when you look at an online gallery you think you are looking at a painting. It is actually a jpeg. I was making the case for digital art, and specifically for digital painting, when there was little of consequence to show – often it was garish fantasy art. I was sceptical. I sat on the fence. Regardless, by association I became more often labelled as a ‘digital’ artist than as a painter, as if the two were mutually exclusive. I was exhibiting digital work regularly in the USA and in Europe, and won a major prize in Germany in 19987. I was using oil paint and watercolour as much as ever. I felt as connected to the great works of the past. I included a reproduction of Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’ from the National Gallery, as an example of early high-resolution CGI. It was painted in 1515.


Detail of Jan Gossaert’s ‘The Adoration’, 1515, oil on panel, 1770 x 1620 cms

15 ‘Ship is Stone’


Once the book was published I set about sorting out what I needed to do with my painting. I no longer felt I had to justify – not even to myself - the processes I was learning. I was ready for change. Through a fellow member of the London Group, David Redfern, I acquired a collection of ‘Studio’ magazines going back to the 1890’s. These, to my surprise, were being thrown out from an art school library. I already owned some 1930’s bound editions of ‘Studio’ bought from a junk shop, but library editions omit the advertisements. These copies included pages promoting drawing aids. I was fascinated, and wrote an academic essay on the history of pencil advertising, ‘Pride, Prejudice and the Pencil’8. In the 1920’s the journal had a cubist-style green figure as its cover. I used this as the underlying motif for the painting, ‘Ship is Stone’.

The dotted layer was produced through a software filter. I had presented a paper at a computer graphics conference in Pontevedra, Spain. En route I stopped in Madrid. I was in a Tapas bar looking out of the window. I thought, why not? I took a photo through the window of the street outside. These shapes rhymed with the painting I was working on back home. I exhibited it alongside student work – I was teaching at Chelsea. We were required to acknowledge the sponsorship of a tech company. I was reluctant to do so. I always preferred to be independent, and used my own equipment. So I had some fun with the title, which is an anagram.


‘Ship is Stone’, 2006, oil on canvas, 170 x 127 cms

16 ‘Train Ticket to Milan’ This title came from a dream, and like other titles was a misdirection. It was exhibited a few times, including in the window of the Hilton that faces Trafalgar Square in 2007 – part of a London Group show. For once my painting colleagues, till then politely sceptical of my digital process, began asking questions. How was it made? Like ‘Heron Island’, and some earlier works, I hoped it allowed your mind to wander around. The freely painted lines came first, and the digital drawing was imposed; a saxophone motif, taken from a watercolour, was the last element of the puzzle. 62

I have taken part in open studio events year after year, first at Martello Street in 1973, and then over the last sixteen years at Bridget Riley Studios. Occasionally a visitor makes a remark that surprises me. Repeating the same answers can be wearing, but one advantage is that I get uncensored responses from strangers, observations that are not always flattering. I can overhear someone explaining to their friend why a picture doesn’t work, saying this part is quite unrelated to that part. Exactly what I was after.

Detail of ‘Train Ticket to Milan’, 2007, oil on canvas, 173 x 213 cms


17 Patrick Heron


A visitor to one of these open studio events said straightaway that ‘Train Ticket to Milan’ reminded her of Patrick Heron’s painting. She would not have known of my connection. I was taken aback. I knew Heron well. I had stayed at Eagle’s Nest a few times from the mid-seventies on. I wrote a review for ‘Studio’ in 1975 that was not used. The new editor there, Richard Cork, took the view that painting no longer merited coverage. I wrote about two exhibitions of Heron’s: the latest ‘wobblyhard-edge’ paintings, and one of works from the fifties and sixties that had been shown in New York but not in the UK. I sent him the review in galley form, and he was very appreciative. The second issue of ‘Artscribe’ in 1976 had one of his drawings on the cover, and featured a long interview with him. My late wife, Vivien Knight, wrote the first book in 1985, and that same year I wrote an essay for the catalogue of the Barbican show (she was the joint curator of the exhibition with John Hoole). That essay was later used for the Tate exhibition of 1998. I wrote several other pieces. We have two of Heron’s gouaches in our house (one he gave to Vivien). I must have picked up more than I realized at the time in terms of influence, though I thought I had kept my distance.

When we talk of influence it is natural think of visual similarities. Most of us begin by copying, imitating the mannerisms and clichés of whatever comes our way. We can also be influenced by getting to know one or two leading figures from a previous generation. Like Caro, Heron was openhearted, a generous spirit, and curious about what younger artists were up to, and perhaps also guarded. Early in his career he had been known as much for his critical writing as for his painting, and that had caused him some frustration. He had his idiosyncrasies, his limitations, but always showed a boyish enthusiasm. He was full of anecdotes, and sometimes these revealed something in his own nature. One centred on Ben Nicholson, who kept a saucer of distilled turps just inside his studio door in Camden Town. When someone called round he would say ‘go away, I am working’. In reality he was watching cricket on his new colour TV. Heron himself was a procrastinator, a skilled avoider of getting down to work – a talent I share - delaying to the last minute the decision as to which colour went into which segment that he had outlined in felt-tip. His working process had clear-cut stages. The paintings of the seventies began with a few felt-tip outlines rapidly drawn across the white canvas, the templates of the ‘wobbly’ shapes.

The design stage took a few moments. Then weeks might pass before he decided which colour went where. His palette was limited to Roberson tube-colours, unmixed, loosened up in pudding bowls. The final stage was mechanical, filling in each vacant space with repetitive twirls of a small Japanese brush. I absorbed this lesson: make crucial decisions at speed, without forethought, and stick to them, no going back; the paint to be applied in a functional manner, no flourishes, no adjustments. The idea behind all this is to catch yourself off-guard, to shut off the reflexes that make you follow your taste and balance everything out. Sometimes you cannot help doing that, and it works fine. But I have also learned to smell out what isn’t quite right, and act on that response.

all the works. There was only room for a few dozen to be shown. Foolishly, I suggested that we eliminate the pictures that didn’t work. It was one of the few times I saw him lose his cool – ‘they all work!’ The way he set about painting was always to commit to the process without any correcting – as if it were a concert performance – and that is how he saw it. Heron’s approach changed fundamentally at the end of the seventies. Life-changing events took their toll: breaking his leg, working at home, led to a spate of much looser gouaches, and then in 1978 his wife Delia died. The later works were open and relaxed, with the white ground showing through. They were improvised, one-touch and uncorrected, openly decorative with pattern, spots, and allusions to garden plants. They are gloriously sensual.


Heron’s work in the seventies presented a paradox: tight discipline to achieve the spontaneous. He needed that tension, that risk. He was also not always at ease if a critical voice came from outside – but who is? I recall a session at Eagle’s Nest in 1985, way after midnight, when the final decision had to be made as to what would go into the Barbican show. The floor was covered end-to-end with black and white photos of ‘Artscribe’ No. 2, 1976, cover by Patrick Heron

18 ‘Four Walkers’ and ‘Football’ In 1995 I had set myself projects for finding sources. I was looking for forms in motion, photographing tourists in Leicester Square, or pigeons in town centres. In ‘Four Walkers in Search of the British Museum’ I had been working on a ten-foot wide painting in muted greys and browns when I needed a device to pull the attention sideways. I had made several digital pictures, printed in composite formats, where I had photographed pedestrians in profile, striding across London squares. Without hesitating I worked out a method to transpose four photos into the painting, slightly distorted so as to look like blurred video. They provided the right shapes, the right colours. This turned out to be one of several paintings where the image looked imposed without reason over unrelated passages of loose geometry - a jarring juxtaposition, but also a visual flow between the forms.


In 2009 I came to work on a commission. It was for FIFA, for the 2010 South African World Cup. Once again, here was a project that dropped into my inbox without warning. Like most people I was suspicious of unsolicited mail arriving from anywhere in Africa asking for bank account details. This message began in the usual way, ‘you have been selected…’ ‘Four Walkers in Search of The British Museum’, 1995, oil on canvas, 170 x 305 cms ‘Shaftesbury Avenue’, 1996, oil on canvas, 173 x 203 cms

My wife was sure it was a scam, but I read it carefully, and realized it might be genuine, and it was. I was one of the artists selected to devise a poster for the English football team for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After a few exchanges I received in the post a large legal contract. Depicting famous footballers is not straightforward. Every recognizable profile has been patented. My London square pictures provided useful know-how when I came to work out how to assemble complex pitch movements. I returned to basics, drawing footballers from TV. I enjoyed working on it, and my print was sent off. I was next to North Korea’s more photorealistic renditions on the website. But the company involved eventually went bankrupt. I had developed a new licence for myself in treating the ‘figure’ – snatched in a photo, assembled from circles and rectangles – as nothing more than a component to be set alongside other shapes. It was liberating. I was not drawn into the orbit of figurative painting with its stylistic allegiances, symbolism, or history. None of that mattered.


‘Up (FIFA South African World Cup)’, 2009, archival inkjet print, 91 x 66 cms

19 Materials, Drawing and Subjects In 2018 I took part in a video made by the RWS and Schmincke Paints9. The idea was to show how watercolour could be used. Schmincke watercolours happen to be my favourite brand, so I was pleased to be asked. However, when it came to the standard questions I was tongue-tied. What is your work based on? What ideas do you have? What inspires you? I dread that line of questioning. What I said instead was that I cared about the brushes and the paints, and that I rarely spent more than a minute on a watercolour. Actually, I often spend longer, but what I couldn’t say, or show, was that I make several each day. There are many out-takes. I edit heavily, and often use both sides of the paper. I have been taken to task a few times because of saying I take so little time on a picture, especially by non-practitioners who decry the lack of technical skill in contemporary art. It is no good replying that calligraphy requires some practice before you get up to that speed.


This isn’t how I approach painting in oil, or even painting digitally, but it is how I improvise. I am fussy about materials: the slightest change of surface in the paper can put me off. If I had been asked those questions fifty years ago, I might have had answers, but the more painting I do the ‘Oak, March 18th, 2021’, gel pen on paper, 25 x 25 cms

less confident I am about having anything interesting to say. My focus is on the here and now, on the materials I am using, and on what went right or wrong in the last picture. During lockdown I needed a new square sketchbook. I wasn’t able to get to the shop. I ordered a replacement, but received a slightly larger version. When drawing outside I have to hold the sketchbook in one hand while drawing with the other; the larger size meant more weight, and a double-spread of 1:2 proportion. The smaller sketchbooks work well for provisional notes; with the larger size I have to go one better. I don’t invest much in these drawings, rarely spend more than twenty minutes on one. They have the status of exercises. Having a drawing-aday habit loosens the muscles for more ambitious work. Some of the drawing methods I was shown as a student still make sense, provided you are in a confined space with an easel and a posed model. Life drawing depends on the routine of measuring and correcting, the erasures forming a shadow of effort under the establishing lines. A tutor looks over your shoulder, and comments. In the open air, drawing a flower, or a tree, with

ten minutes available on a windy day, you can’t work that way. I prefer a pen. I want to be able to identify the plant. Is it an iris, or a rose? What is it doing? I don’t want a blurry mess. Charcoal would be pointless, nor would perspective lines be much help. You are looking down, or close-up. I don’t need to show the line struggling about, nor do I want to express how I feel. I just want to describe what I see, to look and to work out how the plant is put together. A tangled hedgerow has no set edges, no walls to frame it. You need different skills, observing how a tree trunk bends and twists, how a nettle rises and struggles through a vine. I may not end up with a drawing that is accurate, but the process of looking helps to appreciate that intricate arabesque. Finding an unexpected source such as the humble hedgerow comes from the practice of stepping – often arbitrarily – from one process to another: pen drawing, watercolour, oil paint, digital drawing, photography. Themes can emerge from small beginnings.

tells you ‘what’s there’ before you really get to work looking at it. Birders know you recognize a bird species from its flight pattern as much as from its silhouette. Pigeons are elegant flyers, but lapwings make it look hard work. Birds of prey, particularly marsh harriers, climb to great heights and cover vast areas in a few seconds. Every species is on the look-out, all the time; the harrier has phenomenal vision. Birds in paintings can be symbols of free spirits. They move without friction and command their space. They are handy pictorial devices, and I often speculate on the world they must see beneath them. In ‘Marsh Harrier’ the silhouette suggests it can be seen both from underneath and from above. On one occasion I was waiting with my camera by a fence, zoom lens at the ready, and promised myself that the next bird to arrive on the horizon would be my motif. I heard what I took to be a lorry approach along the road. I looked through the lens and saw a couple of Apache helicopters.


Representational painting has numerous formulae for depicting the visible world, but some of these work by showing what we expect to see, not what we actually observe. This is my problem with illustration, that is to say painting that ‘October 17th, 2016’, gel pen on paper, 25 x 19 cms


Detail of ‘Marsh Harrier’, 2016, oil on canvas, 137 x 173 cms


20 Clowns, Puppets, and not being Abstract For years I had been trying to balance the demands of painting - constantly invoking its history - with the ‘futurist’ aesthetic of digital art, which, by the nineties had been rebranded as ‘new media’, was cool, and was taken seriously by institutions; it meant new ‘immersive’ art experiences. At ‘SIGGRAPH’ the longest queues in the art shows were for the virtual reality exhibits10. In 2001 I saw, or experienced, Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Surroundings Surrounded’ at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. In one piece you walked through rain. I was impressed, but aware that throughout ZKM’s permanent collection were works familiar to anyone who had been going to electronic art festivals. Two or three years later they had served their purpose; they had become instant history, had become abandoned prototypes. A brief moment in the sun. Some doubters had described the phenomenon as ‘demo art’. Elsewhere in the museum complex, in the contemporary art collection, I took more pleasure in the Polkes, if only for their wit. Encountering a painting was stimulating and direct - no user instructions, no headphones, no instant ‘experience’, and it didn’t date so fast. As a painter I was more attuned. However, electronic art was being repurposed for a general audience. I didn’t enjoy the large installation shows. I felt


‘Bob’, 2018, oil on canvas, 155 x 173 cms

processed, as if in an arty theme park. I was pleased to have been to Karlsruhe. I was taken by my gallerist, Wolfgang Lieser, whose DAM Gallery in Berlin has been invaluable in charting the early years of computer art. There was clearly a dividing line - and it suited institutions - separating the digital and the painterly. Putting them together brought a clash of values, and different audiences. In a souvenir shop I spotted a toy car driven by a clown. It appealed to me, and back home I had a place for it in a large composition. Later, I wondered whether it reflected my true feelings. I called it ‘Portrait of the Artist Excited by New Technology’. Clowns, in the form of puppets, reappeared some years later. In 2017 I was on holiday in Palermo, and on the recommendation of the painter, John McLean, made a point of visiting the puppet museum (Museo Internazionale delle Marrionette). If the Great Barrier Reef is one of the wonders of the natural world, this is one of the wonders of the museum world. Being surrounded by so many grotesque, grimacing, exotically costumed models was unsettling. It was an overwhelming barrage of hilarious colour, grabbing and pulling you this way and that. I began

taking photos. There was one room in particular. The puppets were half-life-size circus clowns, part of Vittorio Podrecca’s travelling troupe, the ‘Theatre of the Little Ones’, which performed internationally for some thirty years after 1923. I was fascinated by the shapes. I wondered what I might be able to do with them. The first of these paintings I designated again as a self-portrait, without much reason. The key was the moustache. Three others followed, including ‘Voyager’, riding a penny-farthing, and ‘Bob’. I had been struggling for some months with the image of Bob in digital form. He was confrontational with his outsize bow-tie. In the end he crept into a painting, which, unusually, I completed in one day. I have exhibited these, but so far no-one has asked me what the clowns are up to. In studio shows some questions never get asked. General questions, yes – what is it about? – but rarely anything specific. We are conditioned to be respectful - usually. Abstract paintings invite just a glance, or a pious silence, and when ‘images’ float in, well, it can be confusing. I once exhibited a ten foot wide painting full of images transcribed from an 1880’s how-to-draw book. What I thought to be an obvious

leg occupied the middle. It had been selected for a SPACE fifty-year anniversary exhibition. At the opening, a gala occasion, I found it had been hung upside-down. I mentioned this to the person invigilating the room, but he assured me the curators had known what they were doing, and that the artist was an abstract painter. I then pointed out the images to the gallery director, and had the satisfaction of seeing the painting taken down and put back the right way, amidst all the VIP guests. Would I have found my way to this mixture of playful shapes and figures without discovering computer graphics? There is nothing original in that. It is there in later Cubism, Picasso, Leger, and in Klee, Rauschenberg, Kitaj, New Image, and Neo-Expressionism…. You name it. I had exhibited a large painting of acrobatic cutout figures in 1987, but soon discarded it. The difference now was that the technical process of seeing something interesting and slipping it into a painting was easy. I had full control over the process. I did not have to use ‘found’ photos. This in-between territory appeals to me, where it doesn’t matter whether a form is just a shape or a leg. It can be troubling in a free-form abstract painting to find a dog’s

face appear, or a striding figure. This way the improvisation can be the background, while the foreground - a face, a bird – takes care of itself. For a composition without images I can direct the eye using similar devices. I have done tests, seeing how low the resolution can be in terms of dots per square inch, so as to be able to read a dancing figure. It was much cruder than I expected. You need so little information because the mind fills in what’s missing. One of my favourite landscape painters is Philips Koninck. To read the distances in his panoramas, toy figures are placed at key points on the winding paths that lead towards the horizon - always set low under a huge sky. There is an anecdote in Reynolds’ ‘Discourses’ where there is confusion about what the word ‘figure’ meant in a landscape. It is easy to forget – when so much writing on art dwells on how you read a portrait, on the ‘human’ interest - that figures only have bit parts in landscape painting. The figures are just pictorial devices.



‘Portrait of the Artist’, 2017, oil on canvas, 170 x 183 cms


‘Voyager’, 2018, oil on canvas, 153 x 170 cms

21 The Wireless Set I didn’t begin this series with any idea about radios. It happened during the first lockdown. My initial worry was how to work away from my studio, how to maintain both the momentum and the critical distance. Arriving at a studio each day, looking at a row of paintings on the wall, even standing back more than a few feet, helps you to see what you are doing with the eyes of a stranger. Normally, I move each day between digital work and painting, watercolour and oil paint. Unable to get to my studio I spent almost four months working exclusively digitally. 76

I was also writing an essay, a commentary on what I was doing, that became ‘Speed Limits’11. Next to my desk there is an old GEC radio of around 1950, one collected by my late brother-in-law, which he bought at a boot sale. I had long wondered how to make use of them, perhaps by drawing them. I looked at many other vintage radios. If nothing else, here was a great source for titles. I was attracted by the quirkiness of the styling. In the thirties there was a streamlined box, the wireless called ‘Airflo’. It reminded me how new technologies arrive unshaped; they adopt the identities of their predecessors – the first cars looked like carriages. The opposite can happen. The first digital cameras I used

thirty years ago did not look like cameras. And now they do. Over the weeks I kept a steady routine of playing with the shapes I could fish from this theme. I was rediscovering the enthusiasm I felt during my earliest forays into digital painting. In my essay I explained how this series echoed the ‘Proposition’ pictures I made in 1990, when the scope of manipulations available from an Amiga computer was tiny. I reflected that at that time computers were ignored by the painting community. In part this was because of a collapse of confidence in the forward direction of abstract painting: ‘Lyrical Abstraction’, especially, was on the defensive, besieged by the raucous energy of Postmodernism. After some months I felt the radio theme was wearing thin. I already had around 120 developed pictures. It was then a matter of sifting through to see how many deserved a proper showing. Stage by stage I reduced them down to ten. These became the ‘Wireless Set’. I had them printed at the London Print Studio in Harrow Road, where for years I could expect the precise quality I wanted. I enjoyed being there, with its radical collectivist philosophy. However, it has been forced to close because of the costs incurred during the pandemic. A great loss.


‘Marconiphone’, 2020, archival inkjet print, 55 x 70 cms

22 ‘The Dunwich Suite’ My first thought was to call this series ‘From the Pebbles to the Stars’. I had been drawing on the shore-line in Dunwich, in Suffolk, back in November, studying the waves, the sky, and watching the gulls. I had also been drawing in the nearby forest. And there was the night sky. On a clear night I get out my telescope and explore – my navigation skills are limited. The sense of being a speck in the cosmos stays with me for weeks. It turns up in a painting or two. The complexity, the scale, strains my imagination. How to translate this into a painting? Look upwards, move from cluster to cluster, focus on a constellation, a planet…


Working at home, on a dining table, I did not want to spill any paint. I put the gouache directly on the paper, three or four tube colours, a repertoire of shapes. There have been many variations. When I whittled them down to a handful I realised that the forest, the pebbles, the sea, the stars and planets were all there, one way or another. Working digitally, I can bring out the soft atmospherics of watercolour, and juggle the components, adjusting colour, contrasts and edges in a way that you can only manage in a paint programme. Halfway through I realised there was no need to evoke the landscape, the sky at ‘Dunwich Suite, Chinese Snack Bar, 2021, archival inkjet print, 48 x 70 cms

all; the drawn aspect, the play of line, the watery qualities were sufficient12. As it went on much longer than expected, this series brought several questions to the surface. Was it really necessary to mix these processes? What was I learning that could be transposed to the ‘proper’ paintings I was planning? I also became more and more picky, oscillating between washy vagueness one day, crisp definition the next. Above a certain threshold of complexity – easily achieved digitally – a pattern looks just a bewildering mess. How legible did a shape need to be to function in an interesting way? Could everything be made much much simpler?


‘Dunwich Suite, Watercolour Study’, 2021, archival inkjet print, 54 x 81 cms

23 Watercolour Dimensions I often debate with myself these problems of watercolour, how to get round them, how to break free of the clichés. Could the answer always be found in the next day in the studio? Or should I step back, and rethink my whole approach? Whatever can be done in contemporary painting with this fabulous medium, there is this fixation on the glowing, watery landscape, the slightly wonky still-life, the modest sized images that are timeless, familiar, and popular with the loyal public. Every watercolour competition reinforces the stereotype. ‘Abstracts’ are included, but are suspended in a nowhere zone – like decorative IKEA homeware. I can live with this. A few times I have been in survey shows of ‘contemporary’ watercolour, and the visitor books record dismay – ‘not at all what we expected!’ Understandably, some of the best practitioners avoid being identified as ‘watercolourists’. They prefer to be called artists who ‘use’ watercolour. One artist I know even suggested we erase one of these shows from our CV. Could the whole genre be broken open and revitalized? There are several ways I can use watercolour, but each leads to a dilemma. If I work directly, more or less properly exploiting the inherent properties, letting it flow, then I am limited to familiar effects


Studio wall, 2006 ‘February 4th 2016, No. 2’, watercolour, 76 x 56 cms

and devices. All quite pleasurable. But I cannot correct, adjust or manipulate. I have to treat what ‘happens’ as just that, a visual fact. I am passive. During this second lockdown I have been working with the paper laid on the table – horizontally, which means the liquid forms small pools, and may take an hour or two to dry. The mindset for working this way puts you in the position of the spectator watching the pigment wash this way and that, and then dry out in frayed edges. I can photo the picture as it dries, and manipulate it digital form, treating it as a source for improvisation. In my studio I have got used to working with the paper pinned vertically to the wall, so the paint is always poised to drip down. The great advantage of having the paper on the wall is that you have full control; every touch of the brush on the paper stays as it is; you need to keep locked into the process, the rhythm, and with luck the painting appears to find its own resolution. You can stand back, and see the whole in a glance. It is closer to working on a screen, or on an oil painting, and demands the same absorption. As with the surface quality of the paper, the feel of a brush, the characteristics of each pigment, rather than any inspiration, ideas, memories, is

where the work does or does not happen. And often it is some error, or accident, that takes me to the next stage – something as simple as making a digital picture a hundred times larger than it should be and realising that a fragment of the drawing could pin the whole together. So what hope for the watercolourist? The composite method with its taste of computer manipulation may alienate those who prefer the nostalgia of rolling hills, church spires, and smoke drifting from the village. But like a TV advert with fast cuts, flashy contrasts, loud colour, the ‘assembled’ watercolour can at least look as up-to-date as what you see in any TV advert. But I am not ruling out sticking with conventional methods, the blended flux of watercolour allowed to find its own resolution. Something needs to wake it up, some interference, tension, or contradiction. I hope that now and again I can make watercolours that could be described as ferocious, baffling, unpalatable, impenetrable, even just difficult. Anything but pleasurably mediocre, or pleasantly middle-brow. Otherwise watercolour, as an art form, will stay stuck in complete irrelevance. Or am I wrong?


‘Alright, Okay, You Win’, 2019, watercolour, 56 x 76 cms

24 More on Writing: Postscript


That essay, ‘Speed Limits’, was one of three I was commissioned to write for the online forum for art criticism, ‘Instantloveland’13 -the name derives from the title of a painting by Olitski. The first essay had been prompted by a visit to the ochre quarries of Roussillon. I realised how mistaken I was in thinking the pigments we use are ‘raw’, straight from the earth. The term ‘materiality’, used to bolster the claim that a painting surface is ‘physical’, does not quite mean what it seems. Most art materials have been processed, refined, and adapted for whatever works best. Both watercolour painting and digital painting lack the weight of impasto, of texture; they are more like working with light. They look immaterial, weightless, and that can make them seem insubstantial – insubstantial as art. The second of those essays was on Dubuffet and drawing14. I have been fascinated by how-to-draw books and have a large collection. I have written several essays derived from the material. Dubuffet had argued that the more you mastered technique the less creative the result. How or why should you discard what you learn? Writing has been a way to work out where I might be heading, and I have never resolved this question of ‘skill’ in drawing.

Early on, it was often said that computer graphics was for artists who ‘couldn’t draw’. In the mid-nineties I had a column in a journal called ‘CGI’, which was for the special effects industry in film and advertising, with recommendations for the best hardware and software on the market - Silicon Graphics led the field. My column reported on how artists were using computers, and I was often sceptical - given the wilder prophecies circulating, such as that earth-bound art would disappear and go virtual after the millennium. I wrote a piece for the UK edition of ‘Wired’ about a virtual reality art exhibition that I had failed to bring about. The sub-editor was Hari Kunzru, who has since flourished as a novelist. Whatever else was happening, I was lucky to have moved in circles that as a regular painter I would never have entered. My imagination was stretched; I could cross between the psychedelic fantasy of the dematerialised art of the future, and the more prosaic world of gallery art. Through the ‘Wired’ article I found myself invited to the BBC. Initially I thought I was simply a normal visitor, but it turned out to be something special. I was there as a digital artist, shadowing the newsgathering team, with the idea of providing Detail of ‘Walking, Stopping, Turning: Leicester Square’, 1995, inkjet print, 76 x 89 cms



pictures to go on the columns for the newsroom. Because of the way TV cameras work, intense reds were off limits. A senior producer, Philip Abrams, had seen my Leicester Square picture online, which was not such a common experience in 1996. I spent time in the ‘gallery’, where the news is co-ordinated; with reporters and video editors working under pressure. At one point I leant over and suggested a better phrase to describe Tony Blair’s evasive answer about Europe - he was the Leader of the Opposition at that time, and had been quizzed after recording Desert Island Discs. Half an hour later I had the thrill of seeing my suggestion – ‘avoided’ – read out by Martyn Lewis on the 6 o’clock news. For the professionals it was nothing, what they do every day, but for an outsider it was an extraordinary sensation. Nothing came of that project because of the BBC’s re-organization of the news at that time, but the experience made quite an impression. I tried to imagine what Turner might have done if he had access to digital tools, and had been able to fly over London at night. It would have seemed impossible - to put it mildly – to condense everything that happens that day into stripped down prose, a few moments of video, fine-tuned for political nuance, somehow making it

seem objective; everything happening behind the scenes to give the illusion of omniscience; the news reader alone in the studio surrounded by robotic cameras – quite new at that time I think – and communicating with millions and millions of viewers. The ritual was like a bishop at an altar. By coincidence I had also taken part in a BBC2 short film about improvised studios, ‘How Buildings Learn’, and had some interesting conversations with the cameraman about what was to become known as ‘reality TV’ 15. I set about photographing shoppers in Mare Street, Hackney, most of whom were pensioners – it was mid-morning. ‘Undecided: Lost in Aesthetics...’ tried to capture that sense of weaving a story, a visual story, out of loads of simultaneous events. I appear in the top left, slightly thinned, as does Janet Lee who made the film. The tangled lines were quite difficult to do, though the ‘drop shadow’ was soon a regular feature of paint programmes. Another ‘Undecided’ picture in the series – again featuring elderly shoppers – was used in the 1998 ‘SIGGRAPH’ calendar. The weathered, livedin look was an antidote to much digital art of the time. Curiously, what I gained from that project was more to do with visual devices and technical tricks than any of the subject matter.

More than once I have been working on a painting, whether digitally on the screen, or physically across a three metre canvas – and just as I am putting everything away and I turn my back, some faint inner voice says, ‘what if?’ What would happen if I completely altered the whole thing, threw in a motif that had nothing do with it? It by no means always works, but it has happened enough times. I have learned to resist the temptation to close down a project prematurely. Too many times I have found myself contradicting what I was sure of the day before. Ideas can come from anywhere. Bath oils promoting themselves as ‘de-stressing’? How would you package a bath product to increase stress? Would it be violet and lemon yellow zigzags? Called ‘Jolt’? There’s another picture….


In assembling these thoughts, choosing what paintings to accompany the essay, I may have unwittingly given the impression of a planned journey. It hasn’t felt like that. Moving from hard-edged shapes to fluidly improvised patches of colour, incorporating found images from a digital camera, rediscovering the softness of watercolour, these may look inevitable, but at the time each required much soulsearching. I hope that doesn’t show.

‘Undecided: Lost in Aesthetics, Shopping and Kitchen Distractions’, 1997, inkjet print, 87 x 80 cms



Having read Vaughan Grylls’ marvellous book of interviews, there might have been a touch of professional jealousy – I had just had a solo show at Manchester’s Whitworth. See Vaughan Grylls, ‘Have You Come Far? A Life in Interviews’, Wilmington Square Books, 2018.


‘Fertile Forms’, in ‘Artscribe’ No. 16 (and in London Magazine) 1979.


David Storey, ‘A Discreet Native Charm’, The Sunday Times, August 23, 1981, p. 72.


‘Hayward Annual’, by Peter Fuller, ‘Artforum’, October 1979. https://www. artforum.com/print/197908/the-hayward-annual-1979-37162


It had also been shown in ‘Five by Twenty’, Stanley Picker Gallery, University of Kingston, curated by Bruce Russell; this exhibition travelled to Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany, and to Loyola University, New Orleans, in 2001.


James Faure Walker, ‘Painting the Digital River: How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer’, 2006, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River: USA


‘The Golden Plotter’, Computerkunst, Gladbeck, Germany (First Prize), 1998.


‘Pride, Prejudice and the Pencil’, in ‘Writing on Drawing: Essays on Drawing Practice and Research’, edited by Steven Garner, Intellect/Chicago, 2008.


The Royal Watercolour Society and Schmincke commissioned the video in October 2018: https://vimeo.com/320275277


I had written about the early VR works in 1995 in ‘The Outside/Inside of Techno Art’, Mute, Winter




The process is described here: http://www.thelondongroup.com/aqop-jamesfaure-walker-lg





15 https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/61813644a6c74ef4ac4fa0ef9156adcc

Recent Works

‘Confessions of a Conjuror’, 2009, oil on canvas, 107 x 142 cms

‘Jack’s Swing’, 2011, oil on canvas, 147 x 173 cms


‘Floating Friends, 2013, oil on canvas, 109 x 130 cms

‘Into the Forest’, 2014, oil on canvas, 109 x 130 cms

‘Red Kite, Levie’, 2014, oil on canvas, 109 x 130 cms


‘July 22nd, St James’ Park’, 2016, gouache, 76 x 56 cms

‘Apache’, 2016, oil on canvas, 107 x 142 cms

‘Coastal’, 2019, oil on canvas, 155 x 173 cms


‘Jubilation’, 2019, oil on canvas, 102 x 204 cms


‘Grey Morning’, 2020, oil on canvas, 122 x 162 cms


James Faure Walker (born 1948, St Martins 1966-70, RCA 1970-72) was a founding editor of ‘Artscribe’ magazine in 1976, going on to edit it for eight years. Exhibitions include Stowell’s Trophy (1969), the Hayward Annual (1979), John Moores (1982, 2002), Serpentine Summer Show (1983), a solo show at the Whitworth, Manchester (1985). He has been using computers in painting since 1988. He exhibited eight times at ‘SIGGRAPH, USA’, and regularly at DAM, Berlin. He won the ‘Golden Plotter’ at Computerkunst, Gladbeck, Germany in 1998. His ‘Painting the Digital River’ (Prentice Hall) was published in the USA in 2006, winning a New England Book Show Award. He has eleven works in the V&A collection, and his work was shown there in ‘Digital Pioneers’ in 2009. He won the Royal Watercolour Society Award in 2013. He is the Honorary Curator of the RWS. Recent solo shows include ARB, Cambridge; Class Room, Coventry; and Felix and Spear, London. www.jamesfaurewalker.com


Detail of ‘August 18th, No. 2’, 2017, gouache, 56 x 76 cms


Published to coincide with the exhibition James Faure Walker: Paintings of the Seventies and Eighties 7 July – 29 August 2021 Felix & Spear, 71 St Mary’s Road, London W5 5RG T: 020 8566 1574 www.felixandspear.com

Wed-Fri 11.00-18.00; Sat-Sun 12.00-15.00

Catalogue design by Matt Dennis at Too Clever by 0. 5