John Moores Painting Prize: a brush with genius
The 25th winner of the prize will be announced next week. Here, seven leading artists, including former winner Peter Doig, reveal the secrets of their work
A lot of my work involves photography. Photographs that I’ve found in a book or in the real world as well. For instance I’ve been trying to make a painting of someone’s head sticking out of the water but I haven’t been able to find the right one. I found one on an old postcard that someone sent me. I’ve been trying for years but it’s a matter of having the right image. I don’t have a sketchbook but I do draw on scraps of paper. Those drawings become paintings eventually. I don’t use a grid, I look at the photograph and I draw freehand onto the canvas. I find a grid makes for a very static drawing on the canvas. I like to draw freehand and quite quickly so that the thing has more motion. I only like to use the photograph as an aid, I don’t want to copy it, I want to use it as an extension of my memory in a way. I draw with paint, it’s a slow process of layers and accident. I tend to work with the paint very liquid to begin with and then thicker as the painting progresses. It’s not very healthy at all, it’s so toxic, there are lots of fumes, it’s not a good way to do it. I’ve been doing it for years now.I work on a lot of paintings, on rotation. I have some sitting around that I started at least five years ago. A lot of people ask me why I make such big paintings but it’s like asking a composer why he writes a ten-minute piece instead of a three-minute pop song. I do it because that’s what I want to do. The painting [I did] which won the John Moores, I never think looks good in reproduction. The size is very important. I think my notion of when a painting is “finished” has changed, I think I’m more in touch with paintings that are maybe slightly unfinished. I hope that all my paintings have that kind of openness. A painting has to be alive. If it’s too finished it becomes a dead thing.
I don’t choose my subjects, they choose me. That is very important. I mean I couldn’t foretell that Henrietta Moraes was going to walk into my life at the beginning of 1998 and that would lead to a whole series of work. I did go on painting Henrietta for about two years after she died. I mean if you’re close to someone and they die they still go on being alive inside you, so both with my father and her there was a whole series of painting after she died. I think that’s important, the subjects are in charge of me rather than me being in charge of the subjects. I accept commissions when I feel there’s a rapport. I wouldn’t accept a commission without having met the person. And I certainly turned down Mrs Thatcher, which some people though was very unkind of me, but I didn’t feel that what I felt about her was the right basis for a work of art, which has to be a work of love. I paint from life or from memory, I’ve only ever used a photograph for a portrait a couple of times and it’s a photo of someone laughing, because Max Wall was the only person who could ever pose for me laughing convincingly for three quarters of an hour. I think photography’s a dead, mechanical thing. It’s easier, and cleaner, less confrontational – there’s something ugly, and raw about painting, and that’s much more challenging. Photography’s the easy option. Boring. I’m in Suffolk at the moment. I go very early in the morning to the sea and draw it and then come back here and paint it. I paint in silence because I find that if I have the radio on I listen to the radio instead of listening to what’s inside me. There are certain paintings that I have standing around for a number of weeks and suddenly I know where I need to make a mark. It’s very easy to kill the thing, a painting can come alive and die and come alive and die all the time, and it’s got to be alive when you’ve finished. Bacon always said that when to finish a painting is the most difficult decision of the whole lot.
I choose my subjects, because they are meaningful to me, both the beach paintings, as well as the erotic ones. I like the erotic ones more. If I’m honest, that’s how I’d like to be remembered. I don’t want to diminish the importance of The Singing Butler because I am terribly proud of it, but it’s become iconic. If I see it too often I’d get the heebie-geebies. I don’t paint from life; I’m far too scared to do that. I don’t know many artists who do, apart from, say, Lucien Freud. It’s really to do with, sort of security. I don’t want somebody coming in here to the inner sanctum who I don’t really know or who hasn’t been recommended to me. I’m far happier with somebody who I’ve been introduced to and who knows my work, and furthermore, somebody who understands that it’s not a pervy old man trying to get his thrills, and that what I’m actually trying to do is put across life as it happens. I don’t think I’d get half the work done that I do, because I would end up in conversation with them. I’d end up running to make tea and “are you warm enough?”. There’s a young girl I want to paint and the idea is this whole area of huge age gaps. I’m trying to convince her to be in this painting with me, but I think she thinks I’m just too old. I’ll take photographs. I’m not digitalised, I’m buggering around with an old Kodak Brownie, so I go through a 36exposure film. It’s all done in the studio and then I invent the beach. There are very few backgrounds in my paintings that are real. The game of love is played out in bars, cafés, bedrooms, beaches. I sketch the photograph straight on to the canvas – I grid it, to make sure that the dimensions are right, then I start the painting. I always start with the figures. Usually what I find is that I start with a painting and then within about an hour and a half you know whether it’s working. Generally speaking, it does, or it can be retrieved, but I always know and if not I just put it on the floor and pour turpentine on it and scrub the paint off. All I need in the morning is a coffee and a cigarette. My hygiene is really appalling, I don’t go in for washing. I have the painting on the easel, I like to get up and have a running start at it. Coffee cup down, fags out and off I go. I tend to have music on, most of the time. Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell – they still move me. What I find with music is that Even in a bad song you can get a good lyric. All I need is Just one good line and it’ll send me off thinking, how could that be a painting? For example, Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, and you think, how would I portray that? And you get an image of a room lit by David Lynch, a cheap hotel where people go to get pissed and forget, the bed’s a bit unmade and there are cigarette ends, and that’s the Heartbreak Hotel. I take words and try to turn them into images. Another example, a very popular painting of mine, Dance Me to the End of Love, that’s a song by Leonard Cohen.
Weirdly enough my subjects choose me. I’ll see something, and I’ll think “that could make a painting”. Maybe photographs, either ones that I take or ones that I find. Or just something in the world. With the American Tan paintings [in Hume’s recent White Cube exhibition] it was imagery I see here in the States, in the dollar stores. Look around you, look at all the things that are there. Imagine how you can make that into something good. I don’t know why you’d want to invent something. I don’t have a sketchbook. I draw very rarely. I draw to compose paintings, or to get ideas down, but I don’t sit and draw a vase of flowers or anything. I use it to try to make the composition work. I draw on to the surface of a painting, then I go straight in with the paint. I work on about five paintings at once, and I have them surrounding me as I work. It’s very tranquil here [in New York], but I listen to music when I paint. It’s hard to say what, because I’ve got my iPod on shuffle. The studio in London is quite busy. I’m more competitive there, because there are people around. My working day is coffee fir
st, then just work until about 6, 7 o’clock, then you can actually be creative between about 7 and 10. You need that time to actually make before you can be creative.
One painting leads to the next. In the beginning I was interested in painting the figure, then it was two figures. That led naturally to copulating figures, then they multiplied to an orgiastic stage. I work on several things at once, so the paintings really feed into each other. I might work four hours on one thing and twenty minutes on another, so that I can give them more breathing time.There are a few that have taken a couple of days but more often it’s probably an average of three or four months. There’ll be the occasional one that is very fast and that’s really exciting, that you get it right, it’s all there straight away. I love starting a painting, that’s the best bit – everything is up in the air, you haven’t got bogged down. It’s the most angst-free time of the whole process. I start very fast and loose, often with a wash of one colour, I never have an idea of what I think it will look like at the end. It’s a very romantic, organic process. I lay in large flat areas and keep manipulating them until something suggests itself. One of the downsides of working in that way is that often it looks really quite good quite quickly, just because of the nature of the paint. When you have loose, fresh paint, it tends to look really quite gorgeous at the very beginning, and something will suggest itself that you pick up and go on with, then two weeks later, when you’re getting bogged down,the seduction is over, and you realise that this composition is bound to fail. One thing I do is to play around with scale. It’s amazing how even just changing by a couple of inches can throw you completely. There are certain shapes, like an off square, where you almost can’t make a bad painting. Extend it by a couple of inches and it’s almost impossible to make anything half decent. I also try to constantly challenge colour. You’re not supposed to use black out of a tube but I nearly always had, so I started teaching myself to make very rich blacks using other colours, blues and browns and greens, that led to a whole series of paintings that were mainly grey, but rich, and when you do use a bit of colour it’s incredibly exciting. I now nearly always use these blacks and they inform one’s knowledge of all the other colours. The longer I paint, the more nerdy I get. I paint with music a lot. I think music has a bit of an effect on what I do, which is partly why I choose fairly benign pop. I tend to avoid classical music becuase I think it has too much influence. One of the things about playing the same thing over and over, one is constantly trying to get rid of all the distractions and focus, I find the music helps keep the world at bay and playing something familiar is helpful. Classical music gets me too emotional. My ideal is to get up, come in with my cup of coffee and be drawing before I’ve spoken to anyone – it is bliss to not have to deal with anything and start straight away. But my life’s changed a lot. I just got married; I’m trying to figure out new patterns. My ideal is to have at least ten hours straight in the studio and not really have to go anywhere. I think I’ll end up working at night a lot more.
I don’t really choose anything, I just start. I don’t really plan anything, I just start. I put a colour on to the surface, make one shape, or divide the canvas, but I don’t have a plan. It’s whatever comes to mind. I don’t sketch – very very rarely. My paintings are very individual, but I work on a lot at the same time, I have a lot in the studio that I revolve, so, ideas jump from one painting to the other. I never work on just one painting until it is finished, ever. It’s very difficult to say but I know exactly when a painting is finished. Often it’s a surprise, but I always know, everything will fall into place. I know when it happens, but it’s very unpredictable. I have them around for years. I have quite regular studio time, five or six days if I’m in a working phase and then maybe I go for seven, eight, nine hours a day, and the way I work is quite timeconsuming, so I actually spend a lot of time really painting, rather than some artists, who do a bit of painting, then stand back and look and think about it again. I spend a lot of time actually making the thing. I prefer to have a studio in Central London and with that comes smaller space. It has a skylight but it doesn’t have any windows. It’s more or less in order, not chaotic. Most of the time I listen to talk radio – it’s like a background noise, I don’t actually listen to it. Silence would be quite intense, and also my studio is private but there are other studios around me so I would hear too much of what is going on around me. The radio makes it more my space.
I don’t do commissions. Nobody I’ve ever painted owns their own image, so I don’t have to please people except myself, but I’m involved in a dialogue with them when I’m photographing them and we try to arrive at an image that we all can live with and they can lobby or whatever. They’re my friends and my and family and other artists. I was looking for the most average, ordinary, unknown people and so I painted Richard Serra and Nancy Graves and Philip Glass – my friends! And then they managed to become famous on me. Philip Glass said all you had to do was turn up and be photographed by me and it was an instant career boost!Poor Phil Glass, I’ve got one photograph of him that I took in 1968, I’ve recycled that image a hundred times and I’m still using it this year. It’s amazing to me that, as often as I’ve used one of these photographs, I see something in it I never saw before. It’s like Morandi’s models or something. Every time he rearranged his models to make another painting he breathed new life into it. That’s the exciting thing. If I used a different photograph every time, I wouldn’t be sure what to attribute the change to. I work on paintings one at a time. I make three paintings a year as it is, if I worked on more than one I’d never get anything done. It’s usually four months, though there have been parts of my life when a single painting has taken 14 months. I just show up and get to work. A normal working day. I’ve often said that inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work. With a hangover or with the flu or whatever, I just show up. And something happens. And I look back on what I did and I can’t tell which were the good days and which were the bad. Something about the process pulls you along and right back into it, you lose yourself in it again. My recent paintings are made from polaroids. I look at the photograph, divide it into squares and every square becomes four squares in the painting, but there’s no direct translation. I rather arbitrarily put some colour down in a square so that I have something to respond to, and move away from. It’s about sneaking up on what I want and finding it rather than preconceiving it and executing it. I can think of building a painting rather than painting it, in layers. I don’t think that I’ve ever rejected a complete painting, but Because of the way I work, when I’m a third or a half done, I know whether or not this thing is ever going to work out. If not, I’ll just abandon it. It’s usually the painting that’s wrong. I’m a nervous wreck and I’m a slob and I have no patience – all the things that would seem to preclude me from doing what I’m doing, but I try to construct a situation so that I don’t wallowin my nature and I manage to wrestle my nature to the ground and win! At first because I was so nervous I’d have TV on [while painting], just quiz shows and soap operas because it just chattered away and it wasn’t important. I did that for years and then that drove me crazy. So I started listening to music but then I’d paint fast when the music was fast, I’d slow down when the music was slow, and it seemed nerve-wracking. So then I got involved in talk radio, and I pretty much just listened to that all day lon
g, then that made me paranoid and crazy. I got more and more depressed about the state of affairs in the world, and So Now I really like silence. I’ve learned to enjoy silence. In the country, I paint with no sound whatsoever, I prefer to hear the birds and the horses, nature sounds.But in the city, right now I am obsessed with politics. I have NBC or CNN on all day long and I’m driving myself crazy again. No one works on the paintings except me, and frankly I don’t know why artists want to give their work to someone else to execute and then be businessmen. Why would I want to give away the fun stuff and be a CEO? So I get my assistants to do everything I hate to do and just sit there and paint, which is what gives me the most pleasure. And I have to say, without fear of contradiction, that there is no painter in the world who gets more pleasure from what he or she does than I do. I love what I do; it’s a perfect life. The John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, showing the 40 paintings on this year’s shortlist, runs from Sept 20 to Jan 4. The winner will be announced on Sept 18. 0151 478 4199. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/johnmoores