“We don’t ever really copy the world, we translate:” Interview with Alan Lawson
1 Comment | November 15, 2012
Recently painter Alan Lawson reached out to me and after taking a look at the work over on his (excellent) website, I asked him if he’d like to take part in the Drawn in Black interview. Lucky for all of us, he graciously agreed! I hope you enjoy Alan’s thoughts and insights as much as I have, and of course, his exquisite artwork. His skill in rendering the human figure in black and white is simply a joy to behold. Alan is also the lead of the Alpine Atelier, so if you’re interested in studying under Alan, check it out.
What’s your name?
Where did you grow up?
Scotland/South and Central America
Where do you live now?
How old are you?
What is your educational background? What, if anything, did you study?
MA (English Literature) from Aberdeen University, Graduate in Advanced Painting from the Florence Academy of Art – where I also taught drawing for two years.
How do you make a living?
Selling paintings through galleries, portrait commissions, teaching drawing and painting. But it’s not an easy living. It’s a peripatetic existence. I’m very lucky to have some patrons that help me with portrait and landscape commissions, these people are the very best. I don’t think the art world has historically ever survived without the patronage of powerful people. Velazquez had the King of Spain. The Medici court of Florence created the milieu for Botticelli, Ficino et al. So I’m massively grateful to these people and humbled by their generosity.
How long have you been making art, and what role does that play in your life?
Since I was a child. My mother and my mother’s family are all artists, so I had a lot of encouragement. I went to boarding school and in the long summer holidays I would force my younger brother to sit as a portrait model! We still laugh about that.
There was very little public interest in realistic art when I was growing up, but that was the area I always loved. Art school seemed to be all about concepts and not about skills, which seemed crazy to me since you can study philosophy if you want to study concepts…! So I went to University and studied Philosophy and English and essentially taught myself to draw and paint by copying the masters: Del Sarto to Turner. I refined my skills at the Florence Academy of Art, where I was appointed drawing instructor after a year of study.
What does “art” mean to you?
Art is perhaps the most important human activity. It plays a special slow game… What I mean is that it doesn’t provide the immediate results that say a brain surgeon or a cure for cancer might, but it can slowly drip into social consciousness and change the manner in which society lives or views the world. Some artists see themselves as a zeitgeist. I personally don’t. I see art and ethics as very closely related (they both being axiological, i.e. value systems). To me, for art to be credible and enduring it must be closely tied to the value system of the artist, in other words the question of ‘what should I paint?’ is answered by ‘how should I live?’ sort of. The worst kind of art, to me, is that which is second guessing the market, or using banality in an effort to look original. Artists should be vulnerable and honest and hard working.
So you see art less as an outcome and more as a way to live life. Considering contemporary art, how, in your estimation, is the “slow game” being played, or how is “the manner in which society lives or views the world” being changed as a result? What is current art saying about how live life?
I think the contemporary art scene is largely running out of steam. Modernism had its place, as did postmodernism. I don’t advocate ignoring the historical reasons for these movements or their significance, but one big result of the modernist era was a move away from skills. The result has been a fairly dull period in art rife with poor ‘pasticheurs’ of Picasso or De Kooning. Anything vaguely ‘realistic’ has been called kitsch and actually University art departments have lost their skills in drawing, painting and sculpture. A lot of modern conceptual art is not that ‘conceptual;’ it’s often quite trivial and boring with no technical merit to make up for it.
The term zeitgeist is often banded around. Tracy Emin is perhaps a zeitgeist for something of our time. But not for me, and not for many people. I’m just not that interested in representing those particular narratives. I don’t say they’re not without importance, but I think they have predominated for too long. The world is still filled with hunger, poverty and is heating up at an alarming rate and high profile artists are sticking condoms to pieces of bent metal….?! I’m not sure what it achieves now, perhaps it did have a role, yes actually it did but it’s over…
I think we’ve reached the end of this period and now there is the beginning of a return to things like craft and technical skills, certainly in the USA the tide is turning. Craft is not enough though, if it were the modernist period would not have happened. We need to move forward with craft and concept. So as I said, I’m not bothered about things like zeitgeist. I’m more interested in what it means to be human, to live, to love and to know we’ll perish. I think things matter and I want my work to be closely associated with how I live. Ultimately I want my work to function at a variety of levels: to be beautiful, to be meaningful and to be genuine, and this is how I’ll play my part I suppose.
What role does drawing play in your work? Is it a means to an end, or an end in and of itself?
Drawing is fundamental? The Florence Academy taught me that, there you draw for at least a year before you are allowed to paint. If an attempt at realism is what someone wants then you have to be able to capture true proportions, gesture and correct values. All of this can be done with a piece of charcoal. I think drawing is an end in itself. To be honest, in painting you are always just drawing – drawing with a brush and in colour, it’s just more clumsy and difficult than with a pencil and there are many more possibilities. I would strongly urge anyone that wants to be a painter or sculptor to first study drawing intensively, and draw every day – wherever you are.
What would you consider your “style” of art to be, if you have one?
Tricky question. I’m not sure I have a style, although people tell me I do. I sometimes wonder whether style is just one’s habitual mistakes or successes. I certainly don’t make conscious stylistic choices. I tend to work intuitively and I only work from life. I just approach nature and do my best at capturing what I see and feel and think. Working from life is always going to be an interplay between the artist, the subject, and that space that separates and binds us. Ummm, ok: the world is very different at a classical mechanical level than it is at a quantum level. How we integrate the qualitative experience of the world with the seemingly counter intuitive knowledge of the way the world is, is a problem for philosophy and for visual artists. When I work I’m always aware that I can choose the area of focus, I can sharpen an edge or make something more colourful. I think it is my job to tell just enough to the viewer, and allow the viewer space to imagine. However, this is easier in painting. In drawing I tend to describe everything with solidity. ‘Drawing like Newton’ can I copyright this phrase?! may not be an accurate narrative of the way the world is but it helps a lot later when painting, especially when the painting is getting lost in atmosphere.
So we don’t ever really copy the world, we translate.
What’s your weapon of choice? What medium and drawing tool do you prefer to use?
Willow Charcoal. I sometimes use Nitram Fusain and very rarely compressed charcoal. I also like a bit of white chalk but willow is something wonderful. I like the fact that our paleolithic ancestors were using similar tools, pieces of burnt stick, to express themselves. In this digital age, with so many shortcuts and efficiencies, I find it very refreshing to be limited by the tools. For this reason I grind my own paints and use old hog hair brushes as well. I recently read that Jack White (of White Stripes fame) uses cheap guitars that need re-tuning, and places things in awkward places around the stage in a bid to make it more difficult….! When things are difficult we try harder and I think it makes the results better.
What approach do you take for your work? Do you plan it out or does it emerge spontaneously? How long do you usually work on a piece?
I don’t really plan. I tend to be struck by things or thoughts and just go to work. Then usually I have to take a step back at some point and think a bit about say composition or colour harmony. I’m a very intuitive worker and perhaps a bit too much. For me the process is a kind of controlled rage/joy and I generally walk a very fine line between dancing around the studio and tearing up my work. I’ve thrown away a lot of paintings on the last day in a childish tantrum. It’s quite silly really, but the problem for me is that if I plan everything out and approach a work in a calm and methodical manner I tend to get bored with the entire project and it then shows in the work. So yes, instinct first and then reason comes in to correct and calm. Time? Somethings are very quick – two hours. Some paintings take several months. It just depends on scale and complexity.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Nature, people, books, music. Everywhere really. I feel quite a strong melancholy a lot of the time, although I hide behind a frivolous demeanor For me there are great mysteries in this life and I’m completely overwhelmed and surprised by the emotions that living can stir in me. My family are a huge consolation to me and my wife and son inspire me enormously. Christian faith. Though I love to read Nietschze, and Christopher Hitchens was one of my favourite broadcasters, I still think that the Christian faith is fundamentally a ‘no brainer’. This is partly because the theology has evolved slowly with the influence of minds such as Aristotle and Kant and at best it represents the very pinnacle of Western culture, lit as it is from within by a personal and deep dialogue with the divine. That said I think Christianity is in crisis, and is actually morphing into something else, a kind of slack ‘pat myself on the back,’ ‘I’m in the club’ convention. I think Buddhism can help. This probably sounds heretical but I think Christians could do well to spend time at a Buddhist monastery.
I’ve always been a day dreamer and so I tend to wander off with ideas. I also read a lot of poetry and philosophy. Earlier this year I had the great fortune of painting the philosopher Roger Scruton at his home; he is an incredibly erudite, kind and generous man. That was a great inspiration. I’m a mountaineer, so I spend a lot of time outside. That always inspires me.
Are there any people that influenced you that stand out? What current artists do you follow?
Aristotle. Does that sound a bit pretentious?! Then contemporary virtue theory: MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Philippa Foot etc…
Current artists: Hunter Eddy, Ramiro Sanchez, friends and my former teachers, they are both very accomplished. Daniel Graves of course who is the founder and director of the FAA, he’s a brilliant draftsman and to whom generations of artists owe a debt of gratitude. There are also a lot of great artists in the US, too many to mention.
But I don’t think we have yet reached the technical level of the late nineteenth century, half of the problem is that too many young artists are working from photos and this just doesn’t help you to develop the basic skills.
What are you currently working on?
A selection of narrative paintings: The Narcissus Project. Does that sound suitably mysterious?
Do you have any upcoming events?
Plenty of workshops. Snowpainting in December and again in January. Then portrait, still life and landscape workshops throughout the year. But I also customise programmes for individual students, so at the moment I have two full-time students studying drawing for six months.
Hopefully a solo show next summer. Venue still to be decided upon and a lot of work still to finish.
What would you tell aspiring artists?
Draw and paint from life, only from life, all the time, every day, and when you’re not drawing or painting, keep thinking about it. Look at the world very carefully, look at yourself carefully.
If you’re really serious then apply to study at the Florence Academy, I don’t think there is a better school in the world, it’s particularly strong in drawing.
You place particular importance on drawing from real life, as opposed to from photographs. What are the advantages from drawing from real life, or conversely, at what disadvantage to artists drawing from photographs put themselves?
Copying photos is not wrong per se, but it limits an artist’s skill development. This is because the camera has already made the decisions about values, so the artist is ‘copying’ the values. The skills you develop then are simply rendering/modelling skills. Working from life is much harder because you have to decide the key for your values and how much to compress the values in certain areas. This is because nature has a bewildering amount of colour values and a piece of charcoal on white paper will only give you about 9 values, so to create a sense of light on form you have to compress the dark areas (making them flat and atmospheric). By compressing the shadows, for example, you then have greater range to model the lights. Hence the old adage: light is form, shadow is atmosphere. So we are not copying but translating nature, that’s how it’s possible to make the 3D illusion on a 2D surface.
Furthermore, take landscape painting, if we use our carnivore eyes and paint everything with the same degree of focus we’ll have a hard time creating a sense of perspective. By working from life with a sense of the whole we can decide the focal point, and allow areas to be softer as they are in our peripheral vision. The lessons from working from life are countless whilst working from photos is quite limiting, unless someone already has developed the skills from life.