A short history of an unusual approach into pastels from 2010 – 2020 in two parts
I cannot say I am a pastel artist, but I am an artist who uses pastels. It didn’t start that way either. Much of my work is humanitarian using art as a means of protest, at least making a noise. Working across a wide range of disciplines I use a mixed bag of media chosen accordingly to create works that can be provocative, unsettling and edgy. Soft Pastel was the one medium I least favoured.
The word pastel when used as an adjective describes soft colours, “Delicate pastel shades” in decorator/ designer parlance, baby pinks, pale yellows and powdery blues, hardly suitable for my take on human depravity and conflict. I had always associated pastels with good manners and quiet aesthetics that please the eye and calm the mind. Of course there is a wealth of extraordinary virtuoso work that one cannot help but admire, but 3D animals that look uncannily as though they might escape from their picture frames left me insecure, questioning my own skills. Structural composition is vital for me but my gestural marks are loose, sometimes coarse often lacking finesse, and I will go to great lengths in search of that “happy” accident and random surprise quite opposite to slavishly working from a photograph.
But then it happened. Nose pressed against my local art shop window looking for something new, a little black box caught my eye that was to not only change the course of my practise but arguably my life.
The box’s contents dazzled me as though the art media equivalent of a Fabergé® jewel. Three scorching colours, Orange7, Orange1, Additional15 required closer scrutiny. On entering I was taken to the Unison Colour case, and as I pulled out each drawer slowly, poring over and relishing these delightful objects, handmade by master colourists, quite gratuitously for no other reason than the ecstasy one can gain from experiencing the beauty of pure hues across the colour spectrum, I began to select my favourite colour combinations. Blue and green greys, the odd yellow, light red punctuated by stabbing scarlets, ruby reds, fiery orange.
Spending spree over, alas! Deciding they were too fragile, too precious for me to use, I felt they would make a fine present for a very good friend, the French artist Leopoldine Hugo, a pastelist whose work I truly admire. The pastels were squirrelled safely away as I continued in my comfort zone, scratching, scraping, splashing and spilling in oils, inks, acrylics, wax and plaster et al.
Then one day, out of the blue I was confronted by a shocking account of a young girl, an art student from New York, who had been involved in a protest on an Israeli checkpoint near East Jerusalem – shot at and blinded by a tear gas canister that had become wedged in her eye socket. The image I received although horrific was poignant. A girl as slight as a rag doll, blood pouring between splayed fingers as she clutched desperately to her face, was cradled in the arms of an elderly Palestinian women with a long white headscarf, reminiscent of paintings of “the pieta”. The girl was Jewish. Between 2007 and 2010 I had intermittently spent time living and working in this place of intractable conflict, and as it happened I had spent many occasions on that very checkpoint where the girl had been wounded.
The idea of the perfect gift heading the way of my most talented friend was abandoned. I impulsively reached for the revered pastels and in an emotional state of grief, anger and confusion I created my first Unison Colour painting that grew into a series titled “What is the colour of gassed tears?” that related to the incident.
The exquisite combination of colours that had given me such joy while choosing were used to bring light to a distinctly dark subject – human conflict, pain and misery.
Giving little chance for error, I worked without hesitation and with immediacy on black card or the paper Canson® Mi-Teintes® Touch. Using a dry sponge I created smokey effects evocative of the toxic tear gas, combining thick pastels with the odd pastel pencil or Conté® crayon, the short stabbing lines giving the illusion of chaos and frenzy.
By taking advantage of Unison’s subtle analogous range of reds I was able to use three reds R8, R2, R13, in the form of a circle representing a vacant eye socket, which advanced and receded against an otherwise cool colour range giving depth. In the other works I used contrasting coloured lines super imposed on smooth smudged areas or directly onto the tinted paper creating the effect of frenzied hand movement charged with energy.
I recently revisited this series originally made in 2010 by creating a pastel specially for this blog to see how I could push and diversify the medium using pastels almost as I would use paint. Once again I used black card for my support. I made a ground of black gesso mixed with fine carborundum grit, a material I use for printmaking. It comes in various grit sizes enabling control of the tooth from fine to rough. By combining smooth areas using painted pastel pigment in gum arabic, with rough surfaces, I aim to give priority of maximum depth and energy through contrasting textures, colour and form.
Back to the story of my most unconventional use of pastels by fast forwarding from 2010 – 2014. Having completed the “gassed tear” series, the no longer pristine pastels were placed back on the shelf, now at least I had a sense of what I could do with them.
I had taken to painting walls in black gesso, working on them directly in a quasi graffiti style with speedily drawn crude lines and words. The images were presented remotely to the world sometimes with studio visitors who wanted to be part of the action, using snap photography and posted on social media platforms. I called the walls protest walls for that is what they were – screaming mouths from mask-like heads, amongst a tangle of hands, fingers, words at various angles to give that essential movement and noise.
It all started in London. The first protest wall spanned 8 metres by 3.5 metres of heads, hands and slogans, I initially created it for the venue Testbed1, as a tongue in cheek PR campaign to “save” the multi-arts space in Battersea created by Prof Will Alsop RA, OBE from millionaire developers.
Wishing to continue the campaign from my Highland studio I had to turn to my own wall black.
The white chalk was cost effective but I found the marks insipid. Given that so many of the now redundant pastels were in fragments I gave myself permission to use this deluxe product in a most unorthodox way. Loving the broken texture of orange lines on the rough, uneven surface, and exhilarated by the physicality and scale, I threw myself into action up and down ladders until the wall was covered using all my oranges and reds, A14, O1, O3, O7, O8, until there was nothing left but crumbled bits and plenty of dust.
Orange 7 so fiery I dubbed it the punk pastel, raised the temperature to that of a furnace. Looking up into the studio from the garden, the wall looked as though it was on fire. Certainly my wallet had been charred in the imaginary flames. Further recklessness was going to cost.
I was told I was mad, how could I use such expensive materials in this wasteful transitory way? Mad maybe but hooked. Nothing could compare to way the colours popped against black. The impact these pastels made on such a scale was awe inspiring and many thought remarkable! The ease of application as I used them as a drawing implement producing mostly lines, was fast and immediate. Primarily, however this method suited the concept behind the “protest walls”, which required flexibility altering from time to time as the protest morphed and renewed according to day-by-day alteration depending on the direction of the protest in hand.
Only in pastel could I erase areas with the swipe of a damp cloth re-dabbing in black gesso which dries quickly ready for altered words or new marks.
Soon the works evolved into a much larger project ‘PROTESTMASKPROJECT”
I took on issues I felt strongly about – the Scottish referendum, architectural development and gentrification, the Israeli bombing campaign against Gaza in 2014. As the concept grew, I was invited to give “black wall” workshops in Bahrain, which ironically I subsequently had to boycott out of protest due to appalling human rights abuses.
The word about my “black wall protests” got round and before I knew it I received numerous wall requests by families of Bahraini human rights prisoners, some being tortured and close to death, relayed via Twitter. I was even invited to invited to speak about “The Art of Protest” at The House of Lords, London
By the end of 2016 going into 2017, the world had been turned upside down as indeed with many of our lives… to be continued