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The Struggle in Painting

You can’t really call it a battle or a struggle - in the sense that working as a paramedic or a firefighter is - but you could say that painting is a very frustrating business. Sometimes the paint itself won’t play ball, and sometimes, you have no clarity about what the hell it is you are trying to achieve. Sometimes you just wish that someone could project manage your work and maybe order you to paint 100 apples. At the end of the 100th apple painting, you would surely feel the sense of satisfaction that comes with having completed a task.

I never really get that feeling. Sometimes I’m not sure if the painting is finished or needs to be done all over again. Sometimes an arm is way too long, and I wonder whether any one will notice. But then it drives you mad and the arm and its owner get scratched from their surface.

I’m not much of a sketcher - i just take an idea and launch in with a loaded brush. I know that the image won’t be right for a while without a detailed underdrawing, but somehow I just can’t resist the pleasure of smearing paint on a new canvas or board. I always reckon on scraping off and starting again and re-working many times. So for me a painting builds up on its support, and often you can see the tracks of its emergence.

I admire painters who paint with an apparent lack of struggle for different reasons than I enjoy looking at the paintings where you can see hours of hard labour.

Many painters (including me) enjoy peering at John Singer Sargent’s portraits and poring over close-ups of his miriad hands and nostrils. I think we are trying to decode something here - how could such a swift movement produce such a precise rendering? How good such haphazard, little streaks of grey and white and ochre paint reproduce painstakingly spun lace?

There is no trace of the struggling artist in Sargent’s work. It has the sheen of success; the impression of right-first-time.

Then you get the paintings that show their storied history. You see earlier draughts lumping out from under the surface. You see scrapes and scratches, and areas where the colours got mucky from over-mixing at the end of a frustrating session. It looks like the painter worked on and on in an effort to get it just so. And that “just so” shows the effort!

To me, Lucien Freud’s paintings are like this. When I peer at his paintings, I’m not looking for clues to his genius, I’m looking for clues to his method. I’m trying to figure out what decisions he might have made, I’m wondering whether that person might have moved a bit over the course of the sitting.

I enjoy the work of freehanded geniuses, but I find the strugglers fascinating.

Some painters struggle to nail the details, and some strive for a perfect balance; maybe some even struggle to look effortless (maybe I do!). But I fancy that the struggle can often be detected. It makes us feel human to see it.

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