Essays on Painting
by Lisa Milroy, Estelle Thompson & Jo Volley
Ivory Lamp Mars Vine Bone – Lisa Milroy (November 2011)
Black has played a signiﬁcant role in my practice since I began painting still lifes in the early 1980s. I use black formally, in depictions of shadow, surface and space, but I also feature it for its own material presence – as a rich ﬂuid line, a chalky matt-ness, a viscous surface, a glaze, a delicate wash. Objects, rooms, buildings, landscapes, a person, the motifs in my paintings are deﬁned ﬁrst by light and shadow. Descriptive elements particular to the subject follow. Light and shadow makes space within a space for my subjects. Light and shadow give the depicted object weight and ballast, keying its interiority. Equally, they bring out its surface qualities, its exteriority. Light and shadow are the living counterparts to the abstracts of black and white.
The subjects in my paintings are much more detailed than their corresponding shadows. Thatʼs to say, the form of a shadow doesnʼt correspond precisely to the shape of its subject. Yet the viewer understands perfectly that this particular shadow belongs to this particular thing. A shadow remains from the ﬁrst shadow that I painted. It has become a ﬁxture, a constant, like the beam from a lighthouse, or my own shadow. I canʼt remember painting this ﬁrst shadow but itʼs as if Iʼve been painting the same shadow ever since. It is as if the same play of light and shadow infuses all my paintings, no matter when they were painted. Light and shadow grow out of that single instance, painted again and again: each new painting escaping -while embodying – the past, becoming entirely of the present. Through painting, I can tip or steady, explore the balance between the familiar and unfamiliar, the ordinary and extraordinary.
A signiﬁcant painting for me is Shoes, painted in 1986 – twelve pairs of black court shoes presented in different positions and composed in a grid across the canvas. This black shoe has followed me through time, appearing over the years in numerous paintings. The black of the shoe and its attendant black shadow: in my mind, each offers a different, separate experience, linked through the act of painting. The shoe is tangible, factual, ordinary; the shadow is suggested, felt, mysterious. This relation can be inverted when the black of a shoe acts as a negative, a void, and the shadow is read matter-of-factly as a sign. In my paintings, the shoe and shadow act as a metaphor for painting itself – painting as both something to do and something to look at – and both embody and picture the wonder of how the dumb material stuff of paint can be mysteriously transformed through an imaginative process into an object that has the potential to touch the viewer. Through painting the shoe / shadow, I tap into a powerful feeling triggered by a sense of the present and past, life and death, loss and becoming. All the imagery in my paintings is fed by the conceptual understanding and emotional energy to be found in the ʻshoe and shadowʼ. Perhaps all black in my paintings stems from my shadow, painted and real, whether the lively surface of a shiny black shoe or the spatial blackness of a darkened room.
Iʼve always imagined the light source in my paintings issuing from the left. Perhaps this is due to the mind / body experience of reading – left to right, with the light source usually to my left or above me. Or perhaps itʼs linked to being right-handed, the shadow of my hand falling to the right as I move it across the page, keeping the writing well-lit while avoiding ink or graphite smudges. While shadows are nearly always present in my paintings, the light sources that produce them are rarely depicted. I mostly make my own black paint by mixing ultramarine blue and burnt umber oil paint. I only use black straight out of the tin for painting a ground or as a glaze, or for drawing on the canvas when I need a line both ﬂuid and pigment- rich. Emotionally, it feels quite different to use readymade black as opposed to black I make myself. My own black feels more intimate, somehow a part of me, an extension. Readymade black is more a tool, functional. Independent from me, readymade black paint is less emotionally charged. In my paintings, I need a combination of both.
The darkest area in my painting is the point at which the object and ground meet in shadow. ʻDarkestʼ does not always mean black, although this dark can feel like black. Shadows in my paintings bind objects to the ground. My shadows are a mix of ultramarine blue, burnt umber and titanium white, which produces a soft dark grey. For a hot or warm shadow, I add to the mix a touch of yellow or yellow ochre or alizarin crimson, and for a cooler shadow, I add more ultramarine blue. To paint a shadow, I start by brushing my own black paint to the right of the object and then paint the dark grey component next to it. I blend the black at the edge of the object into the grey area and the grey area into the off-white ground that surrounds the object. I usually paint wet-on- wet, to easily merge one zone into the other. Image-wise, the shadow has three distinct zones gathered into a single cohesive unit. The mind knows there are three zones but the eye sees them as a totality. Or perhaps itʼs the other way around – the eye sees three distinct elements but the mind fuses them as one. At any rate, itʼs difﬁcult to discern where one zone stops and the other begins. The divisions are blurred.
When it comes to drawing, my favourite drawing material is compressed charcoal. Whether hard, medium or soft, what I love about charcoal is its density. I enjoy the physicality of working with the charcoal stick, rubbing, dusting, smudging, feathering, erasing or grinding it into the paper to build up a surface, a presence. The insistent black powder stays under my ﬁngernails for days. While I draw, the blackness that emerges on a sheet of paper is so captivating that it becomes an experience in itself, detached from the job of description. In looking at a charcoal drawing, I grow aware of the line in relation to the worked-in areas, such as shadows or the background. The same stick of charcoal gives rise to two different experiences. Line gives me a sense of control, structure and deﬁnition, which triggers the pleasure found in order; worked-in areas stir up a feeling of wildness, of being out of control, nervousness, even fear. Maybe these worked-in areas elicit an ancient body memory of mark-making and the sensual engagement with stuff that comes before learning to speak (or read and write). For me, the line and worked-in area key notions of meaningfulness and meaninglessness.
In 2004 when a geisha in my series of geisha paintings died, or pretended to, the intense black of compressed charcoal surfaced in my mind as an ideal expression of mourning. I devised a paint equivalent to charcoal by mixing black powder pigment and acrylic medium into a paste which I rubbed onto the canvas with a cloth. Once applied, the black acted as a ground while simultaneously depicting space. In subsequent oil paintings this powdery black morphed into a dark atmosphere inhabited by memories. It became a space where the past mixed with the present. I used it as such in paintings of movie screens and projectors projecting a ﬁlm, of projectors projecting slides onto screens, and in paintings of vases encased in vitrines.
Over the years, I have held a fascination for the subject of presence and absence, for things that can be seen yet remain unknown or inaccessible; for the relation between stillness and movement, and between the material and immaterial. I ﬁnd visual depictions of opacity, translucency and transparency beautiful. In my paintings, black and white comprise the visual, conceptual and emotional register from which I explore this on-going fascination.
‘You see what you see or you see who you are? – Reflecting on a few painters making mirrors, walls and voids with pigment’. Focused on visual perception within the context of the painted monochrome for In Light of the Monochrome conference at Bradford College. This is an original contribution to the exploration of the history of the monochrome.