A Self-Portrait Of The Young Man As An Artist

Six years after leaving art school, I finally put on my own show. In that time I have learnt what exactly it means to be a painter

Jacob Willer

Detail: ”London, Last Weeks of Winter” (2013)  

“Memento Mori for a Painter at the Farmer’s” (2013)

“Painter, practise” (2012) 

The life of the artist is most often considered after the fact, so that it becomes a tale of triumph, or at least destiny, illuminated by glorious art. Or, in the special case of the autobiography of Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846), we have a tale made terrible, even tragic, by our knowledge of the artist’s ultimate failure-a tale of ambition turned to delusion. But living artists can hardly afford to preoccupy themselves with fate. Since my own career in art has not even begun-I am preparing to exhibit my work and trying to figure out how the artist’s life can be lived-perhaps I can tell a different, less mysterious and less heard tale, explaining an artist’s early motives, his day-to-day routines and concerns. 

I only ever call myself a painter, not an artist, mostly because I do not presume that the results of my activity amount to art. People wonder how one comes to painting as one’s principal occupation. I never decided on it. I came to it slowly. I was visiting museums more and more, and thinking about less and less apart from art. Art became my focus and I developed a sense of duty to it. I paint to do this duty to art. It seems more usual that an aspiring painter first discovers art through a fascination with the process of painting itself. That may well be the healthier, most natural way. However, I have to believe that I can make something from my own particular interests. At school I remember those odd children who found it so easy to draw accurately. I was not one of them. But I also remember thinking that somehow I happened to make more engaging pictures than they did (there must be at least a little arrogance leading one into the arts). I have since developed strong ideas about what a painting is, and of how subtle it should be. And why it should be — why it must be. No matter how much more easily other painters may paint, they cannot know the pictures I imagine, and so there will only be me to paint them.

Another reason I do not call myself an artist is that I am anxious to distance my activity from that of those who tend to call themselves artists nowadays. No one at my old art school, among the teachers or the students, really shared my ideas about painting; indeed, most of them seemed to think of painting as the opposite of art, or a dangerous constraint to it. I found this constant ideological confrontation tiresome and sad. So when my formal education was over I decided I wanted nothing more to do with arty people. I easily avoided them, and they me. 

But I regret this now. For I am no modernist — I have little interest in the idea of self-expression, and I believe that art is always a cultural product; I believe art actually depends upon communal values and activity. It is anyway quite obvious that, from the Burgundian courts to the workshops of Florence and even to the cafés of Paris, painters always thrive in community. I have plenty of non-painting friends with whom I gladly and profitably discuss my ideas. But friendship is private; friendship is not community. So now I try to meet more painters of my age. They mostly approach art the other way, the innocent way, just by painting. Discussion with them is therefore not like discussion with my old friends, but their company is useful in other ways.

Cultural progress has always thrived on competition — competition is a communal activity — but it is of course much harder these days for painters to compete directly. During the Renaissance it was clear who was painting best and most profoundly, so an ambitious young painter could, at least, easily know his aim. Now our painting styles are so fancifully diverse that they are barely comparable in any meaningful way. (This, perhaps, cannot be said for the many painters whose work seems to derive from a photographic instead of painterly language, whose styles — and often faults — are so similar, due to their common source; but I have never met any of them, they seem to be a school apart and, due to the very different nature of their project, I would not in any case feel much community with them.) For this reason most painters may really be as isolated as I am, even if they only socialise with other painters. But painters can still, at least, compete over their dedication to their work. Painters make each other work harder. 

Painterly competition should not be hostile. I want to look across at a rival’s easel and see something there to make me panic a little about my own efforts and spur me on towards my goal; but if I looked across and saw something truly wonderful, something beyond what I could even conceive of as my goal, I would be delighted — not so much for its painter as for the painting’s very existence. For our culture. Perhaps now that painters cannot compete so effectively through their painting, they talk more. Now that I seek out the company of other painters, it is comforting and invigorating to find that, despite our great differences in attitude and approach, we do have worries to share. We often find similar subjects, and we may take that to mean they are the right subjects. Perhaps there is some common culture growing.

There is another community from which living painters should feel a pressure, and to which they owe their duty. I wrote that my duty was to art, but “art” is only an abstraction; useful as “art” can be, I would not prioritise it. It is paintings I have loved; and my real duty, as I feel it, is to all the wonderfully various painters who brought those paintings into being. Whether they painted the life of a local saint or debauchery at an inn, Diana and her nymphs or the wife in the bath, I want to see the world as beautifully as they saw it. My ambition is simple: to do as they did. Of course, they cannot be my company, and I cannot hope to compete with them. But their example remains, for my edification — I have to learn how to use it. In Sesame and Lilies Ruskin described what it is to live with old masters: “We come then to that great concourse of the Dead, not merely to know from them what is True, but chiefly to feel with them what is just.” Ruskin recommended that we might share in the “Passion” of the glorious dead, having entered their hearts by submitting fully to their thoughts. We should be educated by them — and my every attitude, political or personal, has been conditioned by art. Knowing that “great concourse of the Dead” protects one from the prejudices of the living. For instance, it became impossible for me to believe that religion was for dopes when I knew how Masaccio or Correggio painted the Madonna, or to believe that post-Enlightenment reasoning expanded sympathy and tolerance, or the appreciation of significance in lowly things when I knew how richly and tragically Brueghel painted peasants. And I have come to see some more noxious prejudices of the living epitomised in the falsity of most contemporary art and the common exaltation of it.

But Ruskin also warned: “Now, to feel with them [the dead], we must be like them; and none of us can become that without pains.” It takes time and effort, for sure. But feeling with the masters, wonderful though it may be, can be the source of a new and different pain. As we learn to be “like them” we become less like the others around us — especially nowadays. To possess a historical sense, and through it a feeling for what was just, can be another source of isolation, even among the painters I have met. If they love the act of their own painting before they love the glory of all painting, their historical sense may be less developed. I encourage them to look more at old art, to test their feelings through it. With all their painterly energy, a proper historical sense might lead them to better things than I could ever make. Socrates argued that there was a sort of madness proper to the artist, the “possession by the Muses, which takes a tender virgin soul and awakens it to a Bacchic frenzy of songs and poetry that glorifies the achievements of the past and teaches them to future generations”. A personal enthusiasm is a different thing entirely from this possession and I doubt it will serve the same, crucial, purpose-keeping the flames of the tradition high and bright.

Ruskin’s formulation may now seem a touch too solemn, or at least it is too sadly expressed; Socrates’s “Bacchic frenzy” hits a truer note. For that “concourse of the Dead” is, to anyone with a historical sense, more a concourse of the most alive ever. Those great old artists are absolutely vital, much more alive to me than the recently dead of the modern period. Though the old masters may not be my company, they are my consolation.

But consolation is never easy; those great old painters’ presence looms. A painting is a view, which in your leisure you look into and over; but a painting is a mirror to its painter, and in it he sees parts of himself reflected perfectly. All too perfectly. The traditionally-minded painter’s painting may show him how his practice has failed his imagination, but he will feel this failure all the more because the painting also shows him how he has failed the example of his precious old masters. In his painted reflection he must see how he lacks El Greco’s fire, Giotto’s simplicity, Titian’s nobility, Raphael’s gentility, Rubens’s heartiness, Rembrandt’s sagacious affection, Velázquez’s dignity, Tiepolo’s élan, Michelangelo’s ingenuity. Seeing his own pallor so clearly, he must somehow remain resolute. 

Before all his other inadequacies, this painter is horribly aware how he lacks Michelangelo’s diligence. He will be haunted by the Tuscan giant, not necessarily just for taking a lunch-break — as Benjamin Robert Haydon declared, “it was such an idle thing to do in the middle of the day, that I shrunk back blushing, for fear of meeting Michelangelo’s spectre, crying, ‘Haydon! Haydon! you idle rascal! is this the way to eminence?'” — but surely in those quieter, darker moments. Unstructured workdays, long-term projects, lofty abstract ambitions-idleness is always the painter’s plague.

Furthermore, any contemporary painter, whatever his disposition, however energetic he may be, suffers from his poor practical education — he knows he can never attain real painterly fluency by the old standards, or even by the standards of a hundred years ago. The best he can do is to devise a process that works for himself, hence the diversity of modern styles. Of course, some painters have enjoyed devising their own styles. They celebrate their experimentation as if it were the liberation from tradition, because they want an individualistic art. 

But experimentation cannot be liberating when there is no choice but to experiment. The modern painter is an individualist in art whether he likes it or not. It may be hard to compare his painting with that of his contemporaries but, no matter how developed his historical sense, because of his quirky methods it is near impossible to compare his painting with that of his old masters — in homage he may gurgle the odd word of the language they so smoothly sang. He can see his flaws reflected, but he is not now capable of accounting for them; the masters may loom over his shoulder but, stranded by modernity, he cannot see back over theirs. 

Disheartened, perhaps, he idles. Lack of practice will only exaggerate his flaws and then he is even farther from understanding why he is so flawed: by nature, by nurture — or worse — by self-injury. Michelangelo could joke about the idea of genius because he knew his education and he knew how hard he had worked. What exactly is meant by “natural talent” has become so much more elusive nowadays because, we strongly suspect, no talent is fully developed, fully revealed — all are compromised by education, then by culture and then, as can easily happen, by defeated motive.

There will not be a spare lifetime to compensate for the lack of education in painting, so if the modern painter is to make any gesture at art he must somehow fit his private study into his public performance. In all those idiosyncratic, experimental styles, every finished work is a study. I wonder whether what we have come to admire in modern painting as “expressiveness” began simply as the sign of a painter fumbling in his study. I have learnt to enjoy modern expressiveness too. But I admire more the delicate grace of Raphael and Rubens and Fragonard, and I know that grace is never to be found through fumbling.

The search for grace now is diverted into preciousness. The search is doomed. Over-precious painting, constricting the medium, might seem the opposite of self-consciously expressive painting, but they could just be two different — and weak — answers to the same question of competence. 

The expressive painter, enthusiastic in his fumbling, mimics something of the old masters’ vigour. The precious painter, however, with his heightened, perhaps exaggerated, historical sense must value the virtuous ends of old art before its means. He tries to get there by intelligence and taste alone. But regardless of how he loves old art, if it is not channelled through him in that Bacchic frenzy — as Socrates warned — his work will always “be eclipsed by the poetry of men who have been driven out of their minds”. He knew this instinctively, anyway. But what choice does he have? He “finishes off” his paintings to conceal the cold ugly trace of his less than expert practice and thus he, too, inadvertently but unavoidably caricatures the painting he most admires. The old masters’ superb finish was no tortured contrivance: it was the natural result of their process which allowed for inspiration. There was no “finishing off”. The more one looks at old paintings the more one notices, then marvels, at how open the masters’ working always was. They were infinitely more refined. They found their sense directly, vigorously. To simply copy their vigour is senseless. But trying to copy their grand sense by creeping around it can only be deadening.

The Muses’ madness aside, perhaps grace was as simple as supreme taste, transfigured by perfect practice. But taste is dependent on a developed historical sense, and nowadays that means an all but crippling awareness of the limits of our practice. Painting seems necessarily fraught. Looking at the greatest old paintings my understanding of art quickens: and it accelerates away from my stalling, fumbling practice. My goals in art become clearer — but so does the fact of how ill-equipped I am to reach them. 

There are so many ways to falter. As the precious painter falls into “finishing off” his work, he is liable to cherish his materials excessively. Self-indulgently, he lets himself wonder whether the really precious qualities of a heavy laid paper, or the most subtly prepared canvas (I prime mine with a homemade emulsion of egg yolk, Stand Oil, and animal glue), or the softest sable brushes could help him towards his goals. All the while he knows that any scraping of plaster was enough for Giotto to paint on, but somehow that does not stop the fantasy-the precious painter is always a secret sensualist. Art shops are genuinely seductive, stacked with exotic potions, fascinating even to my non-painting friends. For me the beautiful pigments are the greatest temptation — hundreds of them lined up. 

A painter only needs a few — white, at most a couple of yellows, reds and blues, and the odd thing in between that takes his fancy. But the choice is not simple. Pigments all behave differently. Each absorbs a different quantity of oil, so they vary in transparency. Some dry faster. And they have different natural intensities and tinting powers. A painter comes to know them intimately — he has to, or he cannot use them properly — and they become for him something like different flavours. For the painter there is no green flavour; but there is, among others, the sharp and sparkly sweet flavour of Viridian Green— a perfect complement to the slick warmth of Alizarin Crimson. A painter’s essential interest in colour can lead to a fascination with pigment in itself. Most of the standard modern pigments are industrial products and were not used by the old masters. This gives the precious painter an extra excuse: he only wanted to sing the old masters’ “great song”, but how much harder when the very notes of the scale have been changed! And it gives him an extra distraction. I flatter myself — if only I could have Orpiment I might paint yellows as rich as Veronese’s! 

The modern Cadmium colours, expensive as they already are, can seem so trashily bright, and yet they make dull mixtures. Can I justify spending more than three times the price for real Vermillion Red (cinnabar-mercury sulphide)? Not yet. But already I often substitute the Cadmium Yellow for the traditional lead-based Naples Yellow, even though it is twice the price, more toxic, and hard to find. As Renoir said, it is a “tame” colour — nothing you would notice, but I am happier for using it. This is not only obsession. The new pigments do tend to be more stable in mixtures, but many of the old pigments, in addition to having subtler hues, are somehow more physical, more real. 

Obituaries for Lucian Freud mentioned how he bought out all stocks of Lead White. Lead White was the standard white until the 20th century; it has toned every masterpiece. Well, now the last supplier in Europe has gone, following stricter EU regulation. I had only just discovered the benefits and beauties of this pigment. I had completed one painting with it after an old teacher had pointed out to me how some of the accidental flatness in my paintings might be due to Titanium White (a very powerful, very opaque pigment that is the standard white today — actually beautiful in its own way, pristine but coldly clinical). With Lead White, in that one painting I found so much of the transparency I had been missing — my painting really looked more like “painting” as I value it. And now, it seems, I am destined to search out new suppliers of Lead White as it becomes scarcer. I have found a source in America. Should I start hoarding? 

After all this worrying I remind myself of Rembrandt, who found the whole glorious spectrum of pulsing golden heat in just black, white, some earth tones and red. He never seems to have pined for a Lapis Lazuli blue. But then, he did not need it. (Oh, and I can still envy him his real Ivory Black — how I would love to try that out!)

These are all a painter’s private matters. I idle over them, of course, but they are also the little titillations that can help to keep me in the studio; it is exciting to squeeze out that new Cerulean Blue, then brush it on to linen — primed to the perfect absorbency — with a sable just dipped into heady turpentine. But I am not here to amuse myself. Regardless of how it frustrated me, or how I diverted myself in intricately ritualised procedures, I always meant the work to be seen. 

And yet for six years after leaving art school I never showed my work at all. I paint too slowly, in addition to not painting enough, and so I needed time to amass a body of work worthy of exhibition. The opportunity to see how people react to all one’s private labours can be important; Constable felt he “reaped considerable benefit from exhibiting” because “it shows me where I am, and in fact tells me what nothing else could”. It will certainly tell the painter whether his private labours have been too privately directed; painters who paint only for themselves, particularly those who avoid the art world, often arrive at constricted or obscure styles, whatever their skill. And then, for the career, it is best to begin showing early; that way by the time more mature work is produced it will have market value because the name is, to whatever extent, already known. But showing when young probably means exposing inadequate work; reading David Hume’s regret at having gone to the press too early — that “very usual indiscretion” — frightened me, and stuck with me. Then, maybe every first gesture at the public is bound to be clumsy and regrettable, regardless of our age or our eventual achievements-is it better just to get it over and done with? 

Anyway, shame is not the most serious risk. Worried older painters often urge younger painters not to preoccupy themselves with success. If youthful, inadequate works accord with some fashion and find buyers, then a gallery will request more of the same from a painter — a gallery’s first interest is rarely the painter’s progress towards art. And if the gallery is suddenly making money for the painter, there is the risk he will be distracted from that proper progress. He is not a saint; he enjoys recognition of his efforts, he may even become proud, and he finds material sacrifice as hard as you do. 

Prices are very low for artists without reputation, particularly painters. Pricing tends to be, more or less, by the yard, so a photograph printed large can cost significantly more than a small painting which took months to make. Yet common wisdom has it that to make a reputation even the slowest, most precious of painters must exhibit often and sell low — spreading the seed, as it were. If that goes well, bigger galleries may make an approach and, after a few years of whispering your name to better clients, there may be the prospect of joining their long list of artists awaiting a show. Galleries often have little to offer young artists except desperate hope. Young artists are an obviously risky proposition and so they are not given the best terms. For an established artist, however, galleries are useful: they take the grubby work of deals and promotion from his hands, leaving him the leisure to dirty his hands with lead-and maybe Lapis Lazuli-in his studio.

Since I avoided the art world and therefore missed out on the normal initiations into the routines of showing and selling one’s work, I have some catching up to do. And, as anyone would, I want to find a way to bypass the early stages of a career — the shopping myself around to galleries so that they can flog my years of work to people I already know for a 50 per cent commission. But it is not only idealism, stubbornness and greed that prevent me from approaching galleries now: little as they have interested me, I would interest them even less. I make rather quiet representational paintings and that is not an easy sell nowadays. The few gallerists I have met with — for advice, rather than business — have all suggested that I go away for a few years until I have found my style. Well, I have been trying hard not to settle into a trademark style, so as to concentrate instead on what I intend to communicate. The trademark style seems to me the most damaging feature of modern art, as it reduces what may have begun with the noblest intentions to consumer goods or interior design. Naturally, that I will not brand myself makes it much harder for gallerists to imagine-as they would-how to refine my brand. If I am ever to break into the art world and have a career I shall have to demonstrate on my own, somehow, that what I do may have its appeal, despite resembling little that is currently fashionable. 

Last year a friend kindly invited me to put on a private exhibition at her property. We would organise everything ourselves. I began framing my last four years of work. I had previously done some part-time work for a framer. Before that I never gave much thought to frames — I never even noticed them, for they contained pictures. Now I saw how careful framing can dignify the tawdriest scribble (beware! — it is surprising how much a framer’s hours of joining, sanding, staining and finishing may appear to compensate for an artist’s shirking). But I also understood that if a work is not presented according to the modern gallery’s conventions, then it is hardly visible to denizens of the art world. I understood that since I have no reputation, and since my work looks unfashionable, framing could be especially important. I would need the frames to help my pictures out from the studio and make them public — to translate them for the public. Worrying that my painting might be called old-fashioned, I used only clean, sleek frames, in order to give the assurance of familiarity to a modern arty audience. But the finishes would have to be basic, so as to avoid any impression of grandiosity with this first small step of my career. I devoted several months to organising the framing, and a lot of money — each frame cost more than my paintings would be likely to make were they to come to auction now. Nevertheless, after all I learnt at the framer’s shop I reckoned that it would be worth it. 

When the show was over, I found it harder than I had expected to gauge the reaction. The party was a success, but I could not be sure what part my paintings had played in it. Attention and praise seemed focused on the paintings I thought the weakest. I believe, dispiritingly, that this was no coincidence. My paintings fail when I cannot do justice to the delightful scene that inspired them; usually this happens because I do not achieve proper movement in the colours. If the colours stay too still, the picture flattens. The picture becomes more decorative, more “design” than painting. As such, it becomes accidentally more modern and so a modern audience prefers it. However, some days later I met a number of younger people who had visited my show and, to my happy surprise, they all seemed to have noticed best the paintings I thought had been ignored — those most recent, most resolved, least flat paintings. Perhaps public taste will change, along with that culture I vaguely sense growing, and there is a better art public to come.

Preparations for that exhibition were a serious distraction from my painting. This is a problem that would be relieved by a good gallery relationship, obviously, but at this stage a self-organised show is the best that I can do. However, guilt over neglecting my studies only grows — so much so that I began a drawing on the subject. It is a self-portrait, shirtless — an allusion to all the life-drawing practice I had recently missed, and a joke about the exposure I, through my paintings, was about to submit myself to. My figure confronts a blank canvas (like Rembrandt’s Artist in his Studio), before which my unpractised hand withers away. On a table, resting against a mirror, are two prints. One is Michelangelo’s drawing of artistic inspiration, The Dream; the other is a very loving Rubens drawing of his young wife Helena, who was his muse. These subjects allude to all the worthy things I have forgotten in my recent pursuit of career. And those drawings themselves stand as examples of a sophistication in craft that I can never hope to rival but which I always have to study. Copying the drawings into my picture is my study — it is my study which has to be dressed up as art. And then in front there is the computer where I sit myself down, instead of painting, to write about painting, because it is so much easier to do.

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