I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.
This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.
What is Painting?
Featuring Fiona Stanbury
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t paint. It has always been my response to the mysteries of the world around me. When I was three I went to live in Lagos, Nigeria, as my father was stationed in the Royal Navy there. It was an incredible experience because it was so different visually. The shapes and colours, and the crowds of people in their bright costumes, evoked intense pictures in my mind. I remember thinking how wonderfully rich and deep the shadows were, and how dazzling the white clothes appeared in the sunshine. I relate this early experience to a quote of Kandinsky:
The first colours which made a strong impression on me were light juicy green, white, crimson red, black and yellow ochre. These memories go back to the third year of my life. I saw these colours on various objects which are not as clear in my mind today as the colours themselves.
It was back then that I found that colours and places emit a shadowy essence, and my use of colour has always tried to recreate this. I would try to describe it verbally but never could, so painted marks became the closest way of capturing this sensation.
At the age of twelve I became very interested in Chinese landscape painting and took many books from the library to study their brush techniques, trying to create a mountain or animal with a few brushstrokes. This became a foundation for my work because I have always loved the immediacy of the brushstroke and how it can suggest forms or places. For this reason I worked for many years in watercolour before exploring oil paints. I also enjoy the way that brushstrokes leave traces of thoughts, and become ‘layers of thoughts.’
Living in Cyprus for 14 years was also a deep influence because without the atmospheric graduations of colours seen in a northern climate, everything in the land became sharply delineated and I had to approach my painted responses in a different way. Gone were the subtle shifts in colour, or gentle graduations: decisive and quite raw decisions had to be made. I began to empathise with Van Gogh, whose work I had always admired.
I have always believed that painters get called towards their own direction and language without always knowing exactly how or why. Years of feeling the paint, making marks and lines, gives a gut response and a sense that ‘this is right,’ even if you can’t explain why. I liken it to ‘surfing on paint,’ because there is nothing known, no set form of measurement, only that echo of rightness. It twists and turns, gives dead ends at times, but that ‘call’ is always there. I am sure many painters will relate to this ‘knowing’. This is what makes us destroy a painting that others may see as finished, in an obsessive need to make it ‘right.’
Our world flickers with relentless visual images and whether consciously or unconsciously, these seep into our work. Painting now has to stand up to a plethora of visual distractions and needs to show a personal world or language to stand out in the expanding market. While responding to growing technology, the artist has to be able to access and explore his inner world. For me, painting acknowledges many sources, though first and foremost it hinges on my internal world and translating those evolving insights. I am challenged by the many varied styles I see every day on social media such as Facebook. Whereas in the past, there were art movements, now the arena is vast. I see many painters who are absorbed by the substance of paint, whose paintings are about the language of paint. In this way painting could be said to be a shared extension of consciousness because the normal and standard are constantly set on their side, with artists freely sharing their discoveries. Facebook seems to have become the artists’ café where discussions pop up daily.
I painted in situ for many years but that ‘call’ for a purity of means was drumming away underneath and I found that certain elements were becoming irrelevant. Playing with marks and shapes, letting colour go towards that call, I found a different language emerging that seemed to embody the landscape, or inscape, more directly and emotionally. Speaking about painting is very hard, but my doorway into painting has increasingly become either a set of drawings exploring lines, marks and shapes (potential colours), or paint laid on the paper or canvas directly with washes and brushstrokes which I then have to respond to. Sometimes a place may have inspired a painting, sometimes (increasingly) I start from the paint. A ‘game’ is set up which requires painted questions and answers, and often a lot of changes and overpainting, until an image suggests itself and feels ‘right.’
Brushstrokes seem to have their own identity and life-force, something which increasingly interests me, and I have recently looked at the paintings of Zen artists. I like the painting to find itself, to become its own world. There is an intriguing line in which it could be a landscape but equally it could just be a journey through paint – a few shapes, lines, colours and the emphasis shifts. The theme of journeys relates completely to my life because I have travelled a lot and moved house so many times. Why not travel through paint too, and see where it leads?
I’m sure that many painters will agree that it is a very delicate juggling act in which there is the actual painting, the following of visual clues or emotional impulses, and then there is the time spent looking and thinking about the work. I don’t like thoughts to intrude when my brush is doing its dance. But later I will question and always ask: does it work as a whole (whatever that may be)? Did the original excitement become more than that? Do these colours make a meaningful relationship? I have always loved Hans Hofmann’s treatise on the ‘push and pull’ of colour, so there is an obsession to make colour sing and have its own life. But while working, further potential is always revealed, further clues suggested by accidents and pools of colour. A painter’s world is full of interrelated incidents – pictorial happenings and life experiences – and these constantly overlap and merge on the picture surface. It’s a curious, undefinable world! External and internal realities constantly collide and these shifts of perception seep into the act of painting.
I see my artwork as following and questioning what painting is in terms of itself and also in relation to contemporary artwork. I am able to question painting in my studio and also with other artists on the internet within minutes, or with artists socially. Sharing with other artists is very important to me. My idea of what is painting is also challenged by discovering the fidelity of paint and brushstrokes, within my own language, and how they recreate or bring to life my ‘inscapes.’ Drawing is an important component because I believe that the edges of colours, the character of lines, and how they relate to one another and build a composition with an emphasis on brushstrokes, is also drawing.
Foremost during my evaluation stage is Picasso’s comment: ‘Intention is not enough.’ But nothing ever goes in a straight line and sometimes I leave paintings unfinished for weeks or months, and often find that a new painting allows me some solutions for the unresolved works. Some never get resolved! But I always learn so much from unresolved paintings.
Thankfully we can only ever give a hint of what painting is and might be, because it is always evolving and so different for each person and their inner world. (Then each viewer comes to a painting with a different set of expectations and ideas.) Painting remains a mystery and its magic is as infinite as the creative minds pursuing it. Though people have at times proclaimed that ‘painting is dead,’ I don’t believe that people will ever lose that impulse to make marks on a flat surface, or cease to find new meanings within them.
Fiona Stanbury, Cyprus-Walk, oil and acrylic on board, 18″ x 24″, 2014
Fiona lived in Lagos for a year as a child, which started her passion for travel. As an adult, she travelled through Europe and also to the USA, and lived in Cyprus for 14 years. She studied at Canterbury College of Art in Kent, (UK), and her tutors were the renowned artists Mali Morris RA, Clyde Hopkins, Geoff Ridgen and Peter Griffin. In Cyprus her mentor and great friend was the abstract colourist, Glyn Hughes, with whom she worked on several projects and exhibitions. She felt that living in Cyprus affirmed her love of colour and pattern.
Fiona has exhibited in Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Belarus, and widely across the UK and in London. She regularly exhibits at the prestigious ‘Not The Royal Academy Exhibition’ at the Llewellyn Alexander gallery in London. In 2012 she was one of 15 artists to be selected internationally for a Mark Rothko painting residency, at the birthplace of Rothko – Daugavpils, in Latvia. A new Mark Rothko Art Centre was opened in March 2013 in Daugavpils, and the paintings Fiona made during the residency are now in the permanent collection there.
Fiona also likes to write. She wrote art criticism for the Cyprus Weekly while living in Cyprus, and recently published a novel on Amazon Kindle titled ‘The Jagged Green Line.’ Her book explores the life of a painter in the context of living in a troubled, foreign country (the divided country, Cyprus), and describes how certain historical, cultural and visual elements can influence and inform a body of painting. Fiona sees her painting and writing as overlapping, though her driving force has always been colour and how to bring to life the colour ideas she has gained through her travels and experiences.
The What Is Painting? Project – More Featured Artists