Around this time, in the later 1990s, I kept coming back to the small-scale ‘gestural’ work I had started about a decade earlier and these were a few from an isolated series of landscape impressions. I had always preferred working on heavy paper rather than canvas or board, but always with oil or spirit-based paint firstly because I couldn’t stand the paper buckling but also because I found that I could mix a much more fluid paint using oils or spirits while still retaining maximum opacity if needed. I made my own fluid oil paint .. I can’t quite remember how, but it wasn’t difficult! I used dry powder pigment, supplied by the theatre where I was working at the time as a designer, mixed with linseed oil and something else to make it dry much quicker. I couldn’t use standard artist’s oil paint thinned with turpentine or white spirit because as liquids these became too weak to dry properly on absorbent paper.
These landscapes don’t attempt much ‘realism’, in the usual sense of the word .. they’re abstracted, and one could call them free impressions. However, they’re actually anything but ‘free’ .. there are fairly strict rules observed. These include an overriding horizontal emphasis; a sense of division between ‘below’ and ‘above’ or in some cases foreground, middle-ground and background; a monochrome palette of 3-4 tones; a fluid sweep with a fairly specific curvature and a stroke which almost always tapers. The first few rules are cerebral and administrated, whereas the last two are more physically determined.
I remember as a teenager coming across ink drawings in the British Museum by the severely underrated artist Alexander Cozens. Cozens published a book entitled A New Method of assisting the Invention in Drawing Original Compositions of Landscape shortly before his death in 1786. In it he proposed a form of ‘automatic’ or chance-generated painting which could have come, more than a hundred years later, straight out of the Surrealist’s handbook. He started with chance ink blots and instinctive marks on paper which he would then elaborate into more identifiable impressions of landscape.
What interested me was the idea that these invented landscapes are no less ‘real’ just because they don’t exist. If the graphic depiction conforms to the same laws of natural form, including the accidental, then the fact that they’re inventions is somewhat irrelevant .. they could easily exist somewhere! Since a specific landscape in nature composes itself with a fair amount of chance, why go to the trouble of slavishly copying a natural scene? Of course the position of trees, the lushness of grass or the formations of rock are determined by many things other than chance, but if these ‘algorithms’ are understood .. is the creation any less ‘natural’ than nature? Cozens, and a number of other artists of the 18th-19th centuries who invented idealised landscapes or doctored real scenes to their aesthetic sensibilities, were laying down some of the first stepping-stones towards the ‘virtual realities’ we experience today.