Twenty five years ago I was painting a skirting board in the back of the long living room of our old house in Swansea. My wife was watching ‘Only Fools and Horses’ on our small tv while ironing in front of the open fire. My new baby son was in his carry cot and the cat was sitting on the armchair. I had to repeatedly avoid absent mindedly dipping my brush into my too-nearby mug of tea.
Why do I remember this in such detail? Because as I painted, absorbed in the work in a neutral frame of mind, it occurred to me that what I was doing, however mundane, was being invested with these peripheral experiences and I was recording them physically as I went about the job. Layering them in, adding them to the fabric of our home.
The idea came in part from a radio programme I’d heard about the theory that it might be possible to extract embedded sound from ancient pottery (“archaeoacoustics”). It was suggested that the sounds that had been going on around the potter as he turned the wheel would have caused tiny variances in a pot’s grooves as it was made. By then taking out all the ‘making’ sounds it would theoretically leave a recording of the peripheral sounds of speech or footsteps or whatever might have filled the air that day.
It needn’t be as obvious as a groove made by a potter’s finger. When painting we are moving liquid paint around and mixing in elements from the immediate environment on an atomic level as well as echoes of the sounds made around the area during the painting process. They are preserved as the paint dries.
By extension when I look at a fine art painting it fascinates me to wonder about what surrounding energy or physical matter might have been painted into its fabric as it was created.
A painting is not just a depiction of its subject but a physical conglomeration that has as its constituents paint, canvas, wood, yes - but also the moisture from the breath of the painter, the sitter, the apprentices. It could contain particles of food, droplets of sweat, stray hairs, clothing fibres or even pollen or small insects if it was painted outdoors. Turner famously spat at his paintings while working on them, to mobilise the paint, thereby investing it with his DNA along with a fair smattering of sea spray no doubt.
When I make a painting I use my experience and memory of previous paintings in the creation of a new work. The thoughts I have and the mood I am in while painting influence the final outcome. External stimuli such as the chatter and background music on the radio, visitors at the door, texts or phonecalls can also cause variances in the work. They can break a chain of thought, change a mood or signal a new direction resulting in a different outcome to what might have been. These interruptions are also therefore inherent in the final work whether we can see them or not.
The fact that old paintings are generally revered means that many have been protected through centuries and have effectively become time capsules that carry far more than may be at first apparent to us from another age.