Conor Walton explains about his painting process – technique, theory and material, a combination resulting in sublime figuration.
I see myself as essentially a figurative painter in the European tradition, attempting to maintain my craft at the highest level, using paint to explore issues of truth, meaning and value. All my paintings are attempted answers to the three questions in the title of Gauguin’s famous painting: ‘What are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?’
My starting point for a figure painting is usually an ‘idea’ that is developed, in collaboration with the model, through a series of drawings and painting studies before it reaches the final canvas. Because the starting point is an ‘idea’ or mental image, there is a strong imaginative element in this sort of painting: I work with the model in order to strengthen this mental image, using the model to find what I want to see, rather than simply observing and copying what is before me. There is much trial and error in this process. Even in the final stages I try to paint freely and spontaneously, often subjecting the pictures to drastic revision, obliterating and repainting areas repeatedly until they ‘work’. All this takes time: paintings can take months and even years to reach completion in this way. But I believe the results of this method are incomparable and well worth the effort artistically.
To some extent ‘Veiled’ is simply an old-fashioned exercise in chiaroscuro, understood not simply as ‘light-and-shade’ but as it sometimes used to be translated; ‘clair-obscure’. Light itself is here understood as an agent of clarity, but in its encounter with air and matter it is deflected, scattered and obstructed in such complex ways that its revelation is always only partial and teasing.
With the painted objects frontally lit, the transition from clarity to obscurity within this picture is also a journey from surface into depth, drawing us from the superficially self-evident towards unfathomable darkness.
The bags are painted quite texturally with crisply impasted lights and something like a physical approximation of the thin plastic. What’s in the bags is barely indicated, but because the surface of the bag and the effect of light transmitted through it is so truthful, I think the viewer will tend to accept it as a convincing token of the riches contained within.
I believe the original marble bust is called ‘Veiled Lady’, circa 1860, by Raffaelle Monti (mine is a plaster copy). Sculptures of this sort have long been popular because they display such virtuosity in their surface effects. These effects are deployed in a complex, almost painterly way, using the play of light and shade over the form to create an illusion of translucency and of a surface beneath the surface.
The veiled figure thus reinforces my reflection on painterly virtuosity and the play of surface against depth within the painting ― a ‘doubling’ which emphasises that this play is not an accidental feature of the picture, but its principal theme. Placed centrally and facing the viewer, she is also a sort of mirror-image of the beholder, a reminder that for us perception is inevitably clouded, that our struggle to separate appearance from reality is never complete.
At the centre of this painting is an illustration in a book showing how the path of projectiles launched from an earth-like body is affected by their speed and by the force of gravity. It’s the sort of illustration that one often finds in books on physics and spaceflight; the earliest version is found in Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (1687). It’s the sort of illustration that has fascinated me since childhood, condensing so many concepts into a few lines – matter, space, energy, force, the bounded and the unbounded – that it’s like a little ideogram of the universe.
One might also take it as embodying the Faustian aspect of western civilisation: its belief in matter, force and energy; its claims to mastery of nature; a will-to-power that recognises no limits, dreaming even of the ‘conquest of space’.
My painting is really an elaboration of these ideas. I sought to create in the figure holding the book a worthy exponent of the ideas contained within it, and a deep space behind the figure that renders viscerally what is only implied by the illustration.
The man holding the book dominates the painting; his forceful pose and features express confidence and authority; he asserts his knowledge and power almost as a challenge to the viewer. How one responds to this challenge is for me an open question. I’ve sought to render this figure as powerfully as I can, yet I think the painting embodies my own ambivalence about him. Given the Faustian theme of this picture it’s probably inevitable that he has a demonic, Mephistophelean air about him.
Compositionally, the picture is very much a contest of curves and rectangles. The ideologue and his sacred book are dominated by verticals and horizontals that resonate with the rectangular frame of the image and assert its frontal planarity, its surface. The space that curves around him and leads the eye off into the painting’s depths embody a different set of values that form an implicit critique of his dominance.
It’s taken for granted that paintings are normally rectangular, part of the ensemble of rectilinear forms that permeate the manufactured human environment. Rectangles are hardly ever found in nature, however, because they tend to be rigid, immobile, brittle: anything that grows or moves is built out of curves which allow it to flex when bearing stress, to follow paths of least resistance. While I usually accept the rectangular format of painting, I find that, as I’ve striven to make my pictures ever more natural-looking, I’ve developed an aversion to horizontal and vertical lines within the image. As axes they retain huge importance, but as lines or boundaries I do my best to get rid of them; many of my paintings have no vertical or horizontal lines at all. Where they remain, they serve an emphatic purpose, both compositionally and semantically. This is certainly true in ‘The Lesson’ where verticals and horizontals mark lines of stress between man and nature.
Despite the frontal forcefulness that the rectilinear forms lend the figure in this painting, I think that in the contest of forms that the image embodies, the curves are the ultimate winners. They express a flexible order, enveloping, unifying, complete. Their victory is suggested by the book illustration at the heart of this painting, which is itself built entirely from curves. Maybe that is the implicit lesson to be drawn from this image. And perhaps this fellow is aware of this: he may be a subtler, more ambiguous teacher than he at first-sight appears. He may even have a sense of humour.
These pictures are part of a loose series I’m calling ‘allegories of painting’. My intention is that the figures in these pictures stand for some aspect of painting itself, an idea of its nature, its power and possibilities. I have to try to live up to this idea, and realize these possibilities in the work itself. As a painter, these pictures are thus both my ‘articles’ and ‘acts’ of faith.
When painting a picture like this I usually place the canvas close to the objects to be depicted, my aim being to transcribe as faithfully as possible the dynamic of light and colour in the original. Although in pursuing this dynamic I am pushed to utilise the entire tonal range from white to black and the entire chromatic range from neutral greys to the most intensely saturated colours, these extremes within the picture remain bound together and controlled by their interrelationships; by the optical coherence of these relationships. The result, while strikingly forceful and vibrant, yet remains naturalistic and harmonious.