Being a painter of real locations means that I get to discover areas that I haven’t visited before. One goes out hoping to be surprised or inspired by something new or different. Painting plein air in unusual or unfamiliar locations brings an excitement but also trepidation.
There are places, however, such as the A406 North Circular Road at Colney Hatch Lane in North London, or the River Thames, which have a comforting familiarity, rather like visiting an old friend. These locations often bring me a sense of serenity and a feeling that I can paint with impunity.
Of course, there are other ways of taking oneself out of the artistic comfort zone. Much of my outdoor art is made on portable sized panels (A5 to A3), so working on much larger sizes (A2+) creates a new set of challenges such as having to scale up with wider brushes, higher volume of paint and more aggressive application. The results often take on a very different feel at such larger scales. Over recent years I have veered towards working more in the home studio… another form of comfort zone. Here the ease of access to hot drinks, loo, and cleaning facilities makes for a more comfortable experience. Despite this I do prefer the reality of being outdoors and experiencing the plein air landscape as it is, regardless of comforts.
The knife-edged relationship between comfort and discomfort is always one that is central to artists’ development. 20th Century American Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston, for example, who’s large diffuse and morbidly introspective paintings would evolve out of long sessions, was always keenly aware of this knife edge, and it was a problem that he struggled to reconcile throughout his artistic career. According to Modern Masters: Guston by Robert Storr, he once remarked that after creating a series of ‘pure’ (abstracted) drawings he then felt a sense of ‘relief' at drawing real tangible objects in the studio later on. The idea of tangible objects had originally formed by chance through his large abstracted paintings, which subsequently set him on course to create a diverging and parallel body of work with representational and figurative themes.
I believe that familiarity has its best use when there is the chance to discover something unfamiliar within it. Returning to a location after a long period of time helps bring fresh eyes to the scene and such places can evolve quickly over time. Many of the views in my paintings have altered significantly over the last few years, with new high rise buildings popping up and street lighting is now being rapidly fitted with energy efficient white LEDs that illuminate the local scenery in a natural but harsh glow (in the past these same places used to be bathed in monochromatic burnt orange and peach coloured lighting) and now they appear as if they have been covered in a thin layer of snow or frost.
Constant practice and art making, alongside an ever moving world, always add something new and challenging, and it is this that what allows art to develop and grow, as Philip Guston discovered through his own approach and diligence. Too much comfort leads to stagnation.