Painting from the inside
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
On Monday morning Louise took out a roll of paper about a metre and half tall. We rolled out around 3 metres of it, snipping it free from the roll and clipped it to an enormous piece of corrugated cardboard. We had just finished collaborating on a diptych called ‘Dogs on Hampstead Heath’ and wanted to continue working together and with the theme of dogs. With the large piece of paper lurking in the room, we discussed what we should do on the big blank canvas. After a non-conclusive bit of back and forth, Louise said “That’s yours. You do what you want with it.”
I usually work on A4, which is about 1/100th of the size of what I was looking at so to embark on something of this size was a completely different kettle of fish and it put me resolutely out of my comfort zone. I was terrified and anxious. “I don’t know what I want to put on there! … everyone is going to see how bad I am at painting … It will take ages … I will choose something naive and stupid to paint”. I felt very unsure of myself as if I’d been dumped out in the desert and had to find a way home. With time ticking past and Louise already scurrying off into her next piece of work behind me, I felt a mounting pressure to begin. It wasn’t going to paint itself! Hesitantly, I decided to start by painting a big background. Almost half of the time I was doing it, I was either thinking: this is going to cost loads in paint or this is going to take ages to complete (and no-one will ever buy it). My head was spinning and overloaded with ideas. A week previously, I had imagined painting more A4 paintings and working that way, but here I was confronted with this enormous blank question mark, a vast blank canvas for all my anxieties to project themselves onto where they could stare back. That day, I went to therapy and where I was able to discuss some of these horrible feelings that I was having. Usually I get some relief from the difficulties by sharing them, but the relief never really came in this session. The most that came from it was that I was able to see that my mind was overloaded and I was overwhelmed and unable to function lucidly. I felt like my whole insides were shaking and grounding myself in a stable thought was not possible. After the session I returned to the studio by bike, constantly fixated by the challenge and wondering how I was going to solve the problem. In the second half of the day in the studio, I carried on working nevertheless, still worrying about how much time, paint and effort it was going to take to finish this damned painting. That night I went home feeling terrible. I knew I felt terrible and kept feeling terrible, so I went to bed at 9pm. That night, I ended up sleeping for 11 hours.
This is where I’d got to by the end of Day 1:
That night, in the deep currents of dream, I found myself at a boxing match. It was two black boxers; one young guy with medium length dreadlocks and one older gentleman with cropped hair. In the fight, the young guy beat the shit out of the old guy. It was really hard to watch. The old guy didn’t stand a chance and the referee should have stopped it but was nowhere to be seen. The poor old guy was already stumbling around the ring and unable to defend himself but continued to get hit in the head. In painful and gut-wrenching finish, the young boxer knocked the old guy to the ground. He had lost the fight and was in a terrible physical state. There were worries of permanent physical damage and sever repercussions. Notably, he never lost consciousness, but was only half-functioning. It really was a sickening sight. Weirdly though, with the fight over, lying on the mat with his back rested on the bottom rope, unable to stand, he reached out his left arm, which you could see was muscular and strong and it shone sweaty under the lights. He extended it into the crowd and although he wasn’t speaking, his soul was interacting with the crowd and he was communicating how incredibly proud he was of himself. He had trained hard and worked his way to be able to fight, and most importantly he had the imagination to conceive of being able to make it to the big stage. He resisted the easy way out of thinking ‘that life is for someone else’, so he had done everything he could and had taken the brave step to get in the ring and pit himself against the immense task of preparing for a fight. Pride and satisfaction beamed off of him. Losing the fight didn’t seem to be his biggest focus - it was the vanquishing of his fears and anxieties that bolstered him and the pride in facing the unknown. There was a strange peace about him - not serene but satisfied.
On the second day of painting, I started to put the dogs in. This was met with equal difficulty as before… “Where should I put them… What do I want to say? … Do I even have anything worth saying? … This is going to take ages … I’m not getting paid for this where all my other friends are in secure, guaranteed paid jobs…”. Ruminating on what to do, a strong feeling came to me that I should paint two dogs: one on either side of the painting. I wanted them to be large presences that bolstered the painting and sort of guarded it on either side. The one I did first was the one on the left. I chose a boxer dog. I painted it in a bold-stroke but detailed way. It took me a while to paint and I really got engrossed in it. I lost track of time and somewhere along the way, the anxieties quietened as the animal took shape. An hour or so later, I stepped back and there was a dog there. It left me with a funny feeling. The dog wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination but there was nevertheless a dog in the painting. The landscape had become populated with someone.
I went to therapy again that afternoon and talked about the dream. Although I sort of knew it all along, I hadn’t wanted to identify with the defeated boxer in the dream as the humiliation of being beaten up is a horrible feeling to identify with. However, as the therapy unfolded, it became clearer that the boxer embodied how I felt. And in real life, the fight was not a boxing match, but the challenge of taking the anxiety-ridden steps of dedicating myself to becoming an artist - which requires embarking on paintings which come from somewhere inside. I cried during the therapy, partly at my own heroism and plodding resilience in facing the psychologically challenging career as an artist and partly at realising why I had chosen a ‘boxer’ dog to paint first. When I was staring out at the empty landscape and in my head put various different dogs in the painting, ‘this one? No… that one? …no’ How about a boxer? … Yes!’. At the time I didn’t know why; I was just responding to the feeling. It just felt right. And now, in the word-based conversation in therapy, the linking word of ‘the boxer’ rooted the painting into my unconscious. To me, it felt as though I had painted from somewhere honest. One of my worries is that I lack the ability to paint in a deeper, meaningful way which risks the paintings communicating at a superficial and potentially empty level. To see that I am attempting to communicate something real and honest to me feels like a big achievement. Being able to follow the subtle currents of consciousness that is pre-intellectual feels like a powerful and mysterious skill. It shows an ability to be sensitive to realities that exist beneath the conscious and that have a meaning that I am able to connect to without knowing why. When I paint I sometimes think “I’m just a bloke painting something and it doesn’t mean anything”, and so to reveal a meaning in something I have done gives a heavier gravitas to the work that I had now invested two days in.
I went back to work on the painting and put in some more dogs - why, I don’t know ! … yet! The constant question of why a dog should go here instead of there and the feeling around in the dark is really daunting and exhausting. There are infinite possibilities of how the painting could unfold and they are being managed all by me - I am the one suggesting the ideas, and there is another part of me which is rejecting or embracing the ideas. The brain is doing two things at once the entire time - it oscillates back and forth constantly in the decision making phase of the painting. Madness! By the end of the day, I had worked through the challenges and I had painted a handful of dogs on the landscape. It was challenging work but I felt happy and satisfied with myself, excited about coming back to work the next day. Cycling home, I had a spring in my step and I felt energised by the work, so I cycled up Highgate Hill four times that evening while listening to Jackie Wilson songs. I really felt alive. That night, I also went to bed early (around 2130hr) and had more vivid dreams…
The most significant section of the dream was about a flight leaving in an hour and a group of school friends who I have recently been seeing (in real life) were waiting around unaware of the pressing nature of the situation - we had to get to the airport in not very much time. I managed to corral the group and get them on bikes to head to the airport. It was pitch black at night and there were only a few of us who had bike lights. We headed off into pitch black darkness with only the red lights of the bike in front to follow. There were no streetlights, signs or lights from any city to guide us but we headed off anyway.
This dream is less exciting that the last, but has a significance to me. In the past year, I have had a recurring theme in my dreams of being left behind after a party. There has been a party and all my friends are leaving and have places to go, but I’m left behind. I have nowhere to go and I have to deal with the ruins of the party and the loneliness of a post-party depression. In real life, I relate this feeling to the fact that a lot of my friends are buying houses, getting married and having children at what seems like a time when I have been struggling more than my fair share. So to have a dream which features the same friends and to be the one who is corralling them forwards, and then moving into the black unknown with them, is a big positive shift for me. Those dreams of being left behind were utterly miserable.
I discussed this with my therapist and she added an interpretation which had not occurred to me; that the friends represent different parts of my own character. I am bringing together parts of my internal world and becoming more integrated as a character. In case I sound as though I’m claiming I’m completed sorted, I don’t and it is not a victory lap of a dream. There is still a lot of anxiety in the dream and lack of security. The group of us are cycling into darkness and there is no clear sense of where we’re going or whether we’re going to get there! I don’t know what is ahead for me and I don’t find it easy to shoulder the ‘not-knowing’ - there are no guarantees in my choice of lifestyle. Although it is a tentative choice, I am orientating myself at the highest possible goal for me and accepting the myriad difficulties by heading into the unknown with only the dim glow of a bike light!
Painting on the third day, I found my groove a bit more. The dogs are better painted than before and I’m gaining confidence. It feels like something is coming together.
I was on a train with a similar group of old friends (who I’ve been reuniting with at weddings and stag-dos recently) and Murali is late as he’s been getting drunk. He makes it onto the train which starts moving. At one point, I get up to go to the back of the train (it’s not clear why) and the train stops and it sends me flying down the carriages. I don’t resist it, but instead choose to steer my momentum and let it send me forwards. A load of children appear walking towards me and I manage to use my muscles to make sure I avoid crashing into them. It seems really important to me. A group of four children with blue eyes come out of a narrow walkway and I walk around them. In a room, Hannah is standing there in a red summer dress with white spots on it. I look at her square in the face and tell her that I want to be with her. She says she feels the same way and we kiss. There is so much richness, joy and happiness in the kiss that it wakes me up. Usually the realisation that in reality I am not with her sends me into a depression, but at 0500hr this morning, it didn’t. The joy stayed with me.
Today is my birthday
I am able to sustain feelings of joy.
Monday 11th October 2021
Back in the studio to edge myself closer to finishing the magical dogs painting. Reflecting on the style of the painting over the weekend, what has emerged that I find interesting is the clash of styles within the painting. The dogs seem to follow a traditional vein of depiction yet they are situated within a fantasy world which errs towards kitsch. The painting is a meeting of two worlds that usually don’t meet. I think this is me meeting parts of myself which have not had a chance to be expressed. It feels taboo to be painting rainbows, daisies and stars in pinks and pale blues. I feel there is a girly part of me being expressed (and with that, exposed). It feels a bit risqué to be painting like this. And fun! I think there is something being explored here which is new for me. I often feel tethered to an expectation to deliver realistic paintings which display visible talent. This expectation has kept me within a certain bandwidth of expression. To paint something frilly and frivolous is to move away from this expectation. Painting realistically and in a certain way is also related to the drive to make money and sell work. It is safer to paint more towards the realist bent. So not only is this painting a rebellious departure from the real, it is also two fingers up at my anxiety of not selling. It’s a simultaneously sensitive yet bold painting.