End of first year review of progress

Colour in the fabric of my world

The following piece of writing is presented as a series of notes including quotes taken directly from my studio research journals and tracks the ways I have approached my studio processes and readings along the way. I begin with a brief timeline of the studio work and then discuss some questions and outcomes of the research in sections titled: Techniques - Methodologies; Weather and landscape; and Sensation and experience.

Studio experimentation timeline
I began my studio experimentation with a series of works based on photographs I had taken of reflections through and under water – collectively called the Memory of Water series. One thing I was interested in exploring with these works was the experience of immersion, to reference or call to mind the sense of being surrounded by water (or painting perhaps!) and therefore initiating or offering a different sense of perception - if only for a moment. These works were varied in scale from 500 x 700 mm through to 1800 x 3000mm. This period also saw me make several smaller works that appeared to feature more of a grid-like pattern, these were in my mind at least still related more to the water reflection patterns than the grid as such, although their interpretation by viewers very much focused on the modernist grid reference.

In these paintings I focused on using complementary colour pairings, and tried to suggest movement in and across the work through placement of the black ‘interference’ dots. And to give a general sense of movement and ‘flicker’ through the use of complementary colours and the spray technique where the surface is made up of many small dots in different colours. It is noted in my ‘research diary’ that I thought while painting that the works are made through movement, through sprayed paint flying towards the canvas. All paintings share this common element, they are made through movements of one kind or another across a surface, and this is occurring in time, relating to part of my research question: can painting deal with time and movement given its inherently static nature?

The next experiment in studio was the creation of a work on an extremely large scale, much bigger than any previous paintings at 3metres x 5metres. While the resulting work was problematic and unresolved, the scale was exciting and suggested possibilities of affect in larger works not present in smaller pieces. This work also began to suggest other possible references in terms of imagery - fishnet, spider webs, and chicken wire for example – and led to a consideration of forms of representation. Discussions regarding this work raised questions of intention and reception regarding these representational aspects – do I mind if people read the work in this way? Will I use it or decrease the incidence of elements that have representational possibilities?

This led into another large scale work using circle shapes rather than the grid, - perhaps the first of a series not directly based on anything landscape related. This piece featured more instances of what I call ‘disruptions’ to the picture plane and surface of the work. These disruptive areas, where the sprayed dots have been left to splatter large and thick at random as the sprayer runs low on pressure, operate perhaps in these large sprayed works as the painted black dots of the earlier works do in those paintings, as compositional devices, focal points, and areas of interest/difference. Unlike my previous paintings both these larger scale works were made on the floor and were of a scale that meant I had to walk on them during the making process. This led to a different character of marks due to the fact that I was more directly spraying on to areas of canvas.

Alongside these works I produced a series of very small paintings on gessoed canvas made using GOLDEN ‘interference’ and iridescent paints. Using a grid structure as a result of the identification of the ‘grid’ in the large works, these were studies on light and complementary colour. I was interested in how the paintings changed as I walked around them in the studio, different viewing distance and angle made a completely different work. This is an aspect of my earlier work that has always interested me; however in the previous works it was less obvious, and therefore often overlooked by viewers. I realise that people may still overlook the effect of the interference paintings but being more dramatic it is more of a visual surprise if or when they see it. The structure of these interference paints is such that they function on complementary colour relationships, which I was already using, so seemed doubly appropriate.

Other painting experiments have been drawings on large- scale paper through which I began to rediscover drawing as a medium, and consider it as a valid research tool. I made a series of experimental works in spray on board, and sprayed onto both board and canvas using the high pressure compressor. Generally the results of these experiments were not positive, the marks made by these methods were a little too uniform and lacked the surface interest of marks/ dots that the diffuser produces, however I felt there was scope for these methods to be used in conjunction with my diffuser technique. I also found a small airbrush, which proved really useful for making smaller scale drawings, and again creates a possible new mark to add to the vocabulary of sprays I can use to build up my paintings.

My most recent works are a series of photographs and ‘video drawings’ (small short video pieces that I am considering as a form of drawing rather than complete resolved work) on my daily experience of the world outside my window in London. I have photographed and filmed the wind moving through the trees and the changing colours of the sky at different times of the day and night, and through this was thinking not only of wind and air, but also of experience of time and a daily experience of the weather and the world. These documentations I see as forming part of a vocabulary of experiences and images that become part of my research material and importantly my memory database of experiences. I took a number of photos of the sea and wind patterns on the water on a visit to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands, which I will use alongside other images of water. I am interested in determining whether my change of location from New Zealand to Britain will have a major impact on the look of my work thus bringing into question the extent to which my surroundings are present in the paintings, whether directly acknowledged or not, and therefore to what degree they might be considered in any sense representational.

Future experiments intended are to make drawings both from life of my day to day experiences and some analytical studies of other art works that have a structure or use of light and colour that are related to my ideas, or a focus on weather and experiences of landscape, such as the Turner paintings at Tate Britain.


October 2004 – journal entry:
“I have developed a way of working that is totally specific to using acrylic paint on raw (un-primed) canvas”

It hadn’t really occurred to me until I set it down on paper that my painting technique is unusual amongst my peers, and furthermore that having a unique painting method is both a help and a potential hindrance. I spray paint onto canvas rather than applying it traditionally with a brush. I took an alternative route also in developing my spray technique and use a garden atomiser rather than an air compressor or spray can. It was through various experiments that I eventually found a way to use my atomisers with very watered down paint that I can spray in tiny droplets in many layers of colours. For some time this spray technique has been the sole way in which I have worked, what is now necessary for me is to determine whether this is limiting or whether it allows me to fully explore the possibilities of that combination of materials. Recent experiments in trying my technique on other surfaces have proved that the spray performs very differently on different surfaces, so the marks produced are specific to each combination of materials.

The extension of the vocabulary to other materials and mark making tools has led to the discovery that even when I work in a different way in terms of both technique and imagery the concerns of my work remain relatively similar. The small grid and stripe studies I had been making had seemed to me unrelated to my sprayed paintings – early attempts to combine the two were not positive – however it became apparent that although different in form these paintings bear relation none the less. The fugitive nature of the image and changeable aspects of the works remain in both types of painting. In both I am interested in the qualities of paint and the elements of painting’s language and the possibilities of introducing aspects of visual surprise. Also my colour palette and sensibility remains identifiable. Perhaps my handwriting as a painter remains whether I am writing in one language or another.

The precedents for spraying paint as a sole or primary method of application are not many outside the arena of graffiti art. The 1960’s saw Clement Greenberg proclaim American based Jules Olitski as the best painter of the times yet now few younger artists recognise his name. He was perhaps the first artist to use sprayed acrylic onto canvas, and his large colour field paintings, which I discovered after using my technique for several years, are the first paintings I have seen that appear similar to mine in terms of paint application. Olitski sprayed with a compressor yet experimented with varying pressure and as a result his works have fine droplets of paint as well as the more typical solid masses or clouds of paint on the surface. German artist Katharina Grosse has more recently brought spray painting into the world of fine art again with mural scale spray paintings that exist as temporary installations for the most part, on walls, ceilings, partitions, corners, doorframes, even billboards. While Olitski can obviously be said to form part of the American colour field movement, Grosse is referring to these paintings and artists and discussed in relation to them. Both artists also personally make reference to the impressionist ‘fields’ of Monet’s water lily paintings. These two movements, Impressionism and Colour field painting have long been part of my general interest and form the line of descent by which I feel my practice has developed. Monet and the impressionist movement in general are important historically in this research and are highly relevant regarding my concern with weather and experiences of landscape, and in finding ways to describe experiences of vision or sensation in equivalent terms rather than representational imagery.

It is noted regarding Olitski’s practice that the lines of painted colour at the edges of his large sprayed canvases have a delimiting purpose, ‘with a few marks or strokes at the edges he has been able to introduce what are often abrupt, fauve like bursts of hue and value while simultaneously delimiting and declaring his sprayed fields as individual pictorial units’. (Kenworth Moffett, Jules Olitski, pub. 1981, H.N. Abrams) I suggest audience perceptions have changed since the1980’s and that now the sprayed field is already considered or read as a pictorial unit in itself.

In conversation with Nuala Gregory, October 2004:
It appears almost as if the paint is in the canvas, not on it, like staining.

The fabric of the canvas is very much part of my work. The material nature of it is apparent when viewing the work at close range. The spray technique and my use of diluted water-like paint allows me to build up many layers and colours while leaving the texture of the canvas visible. I feel it is now necessary to follow this through as an exploration of surfaces and experiment with other grounds as I have experimented with new methods of paint application. I have begun this process with a series of drawings on various papers, and as noted above, in some sprayed works on board that initially were not successful. This suggests that for the time being the fabric element is important so I now intend to make studies on other types of canvas and fabric. The idea of the paint being in the fabric of the work reminds me of the phrase ‘in the fabric of’ –meaning something is inherent or essential, at the heart of – I like this interpretation of ‘in the fabric of’ as relating to my work in terms of aspects of one thing relating to another, and the elements of the work being essentially part of its subject as well as its materials.

Journal entry:
Jules Olitski: ‘drawing is always on the surface … I believe colour is in not on the surface’. (Olitski, Jules, emphasis mine, from Olitski’s text for the Venice Biennale 1966, quoted in Kenworth Moffett, Jules Olitski, pub. 1981, H.N. Abrams)

So my paint and colour are in the surface of my paintings, soaked, dyed, sprayed, stained into the fabric of my work.

Recent reading of Bridget Riley: Dialogues on Art (Edited by Robert Kudielka, 1995, Thames & Hudson), and re-evaluating my experiments with interference paints I realise to what extent colour is important in my practice and in this investigation. It will become the major focus of the next phase of studio research. Colour is one potential way I see of creating affect, emotion, and movement in painting. Something I see as a possibility for further investigation is the condition synaesthesia where a person’s senses are interrelated or confused and they can see sound as colour for example. This effect, while a recognised condition in its extreme form, I suggest is part of the normal way in which our senses and perception operate - being bodily and thus inter-related. I am interested in the physical affect a painting might have on a viewer. It is quite a common association for example to perceive the colour red as being warm. These aspects of colour provide opportunities in painting for creating both affect and movement.

I perform many similar tasks with the making of each painting. The results differ every time, due to chance, decisions on colour and individual placement of marks, but the basic building blocks of the performance of painting are the same each time: spray layers, wash, wet on wet working back into the work with painted dots. I am presently trying new ways of working, and challenging this repetitive practice as it has made up my painting process for some time. However, I am also introducing change within my technique via the use of new spray tools such as the compressor and airbrush, and also with the increased use of ‘random mark making - or mistakes!’ letting the pressure in the sprayer run low so that the range of sprayed dots varies in size. Also I am now incorporating other more traditional brush techniques into my paintings and am experimenting with the grounds I work on, using some gessoed canvases alongside my unprimed sprayed canvases. I have also introduced a way of working on the pieces on the floor allowing me to walk on the larger pieces as I make them. In other ways I vary the elements included in each work – some feature only spray, others various layers and combinations of spray and hand painted marks. I found that working on the floor and being in closer physical contact with areas of the painting as I painted it led to a different type of mark –a more direct and definite element to the work. This seems to suggest that touch is important although I am generally not painting traditionally with a brush and in fact use a ‘hands off’ technique in spraying. Working on the floor made composition difficult, at times the pieces seemed more successful on the floor than they did once put up on the wall. This has led me to consider the possibility of creating an installation where there are works made for both wall and floor. This would relate to the idea of immersion that is still present in the enquiry as a whole, and would add another element of experience to the viewing of the works. As such I consider it a necessary next step in the research.


Monet apparently said that he wanted “to do the impossible, to paint the air”.

Jules Olitski said he wanted “to spray colour into the air and have it stay there”. (Olitski, Jules, quoted in Kenworth Moffett, Jules Olitski, pub. 1981, H.N. Abrams).

Bridget Riley: ‘I [also] want these qualities in my paintings: air, movement, clarity.” (Riley, in conversation with Michael Craig-Martin, Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art ed. Robert Kudielka, 1995, Thames and Hudson, p 62).

These three quotes I had collected in my research journal. It wasn’t until I was putting them together that I began to think of air in relation to what I do with paint and my ideas on experience and bodily-based perception. This idea of painting the air, seems to me to be like the idea of painting the invisible, the ephemeral, - which I would consider memory and experience to be – which I identify as part of my aim and intention within my work.

It occurred to me also that I am using air quite literally as I spray paint mixed with compressed air, and spray it through the air towards the canvas. Also, I like the connection between wind and air in terms of weather - this aspect of experience that we can’t see but that affects us and is between us and all our interactions with the world.

Journal entry October 30th 2004:
I noted that ‘I rain on my paintings’ If I began to work on a larger scale then they would be big enough for me to ‘make storms, floods, wind and cloud’

This interpretation of what I am doing in the painting process has been one that I enjoy. The exploration of techniques using water-like paint and working on a large scale seems to open up potential for some of the more physical aspects of what I do in the studio. This idea draws my attention to the actual processes I use in making the works, the way that I spray from all sorts of angles, pour washes of paint, tilt the canvases to get the paint to run in the direction I want it to, prop them up to dry on an angle. At times it feels as if I am literally creating and weathering on to a landscape or world. It can be a lot of fun. I can see potential for further interaction or interference in terms of using other methods of manipulating paint – drying it at speed, investigating more ways of removing paint as well as applying it.

Journal, entry August 2004:
“what I enjoy about my work are these connections between idea and method, image and material” I wrote this regarding the works being about light patterns on sand seen through water, and the paintings being made of colour - which is essentially the eye receiving light, and paint - which is largely in my case - made up of water. This extends through my painting processes of spraying and misting paint that relate directly to aspects of the weather - rain, cloud, wind etc – that the paintings are concerned with.


The experiences in the world that interest me are those moments, often in the natural landscape, where either something appears and captures my attention for a moment and then disappears relatively quickly, or alternatively where I feel captivated by something and feel suspended in a type of perception and awareness of an aspect of the world that had previously gone unnoticed. For the purposes of this research project it is necessary for me to define the type of experiences I am attempting to reference; specifically those relating to the natural world or landscape through interaction with the weather, and the experiences of viewing paintings. Drawing attention to these moments of visual experience, to then lead possibly to new experiences of nature and also of painting through these moments of experience, is one main focus of my work.

Through recent readings, I have found the precedents for this intention at least in the work of Bridget Riley. Her work in its formal qualities is quite different to my own; however there is distinct similarity in intent. She talks about sensation as being of primary importance, and looks to create equivalents (another term I often use for my own paintings) of sensation without representation of any kind: ‘it’s the recognition of the sensation without the actual incident which prompted it’. (Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art ed. Robert Kudielka, 1995, Thames and Hudson p79). These sensations come from sensory experiences which Riley suggests ‘defy attention, the moment they are focused on they evaporate; they are extremely elusive things’ (Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art ed. Robert Kudielka, 1995, Thames and Hudson p78). These sensations can come from the simplest of experiences: ‘if you walk through a landscape, you absorb sensations of shadowy parts, massed forms, open spaces, hard rocks, things above you , the earth beneath – they’re not only visual sensations, they are sensations which take in the freshness of the day, a wind that may be blowing, clouds, rain in the air, a whole variety of accompanying feelings – these are so fleeting that you can’t separate them and nor do you want to. But at the end of such a walk you feel something has happened, although you can’t actually name it.’ ( Bridget Riley, Dialogues on Art ed. Robert Kudielka, 1995, Thames and Hudson p78).

Journal entry (25th February 2005)
‘the large new work is disorienting, when I look at it I feel like I might lose my balance, or like I don’t know where I am in space. Is it falling or floating? Perhaps a bit of both.’
This comment was made while looking at the larger of my last two recent paintings. An un-stretched work measuring 3m x 5m this piece was unresolved but offered some interesting starting points for further work. I especially am interested in the possibilities of affect when making work on such a large scale. It has a real physical presence different to work that is contained and able to be viewed all at once. What responses this type of work brings for viewers I am not yet sure. The issue of how to gauge viewer response for the purposes of research is as yet unresolved. Suggestions include questionnaires, interviews, and interactive websites. For the purposes of research it has been suggested to me that audience or viewers should be narrowed down to a particular group of people within society however I have not yet made a decision regarding how I intend to approach this aspect.

Context of enquiry
The 2004 Sydney biennale titled On Reason and Emotion, was very important in identifying for me the interest of artists and curators in the notions of experience, perception and emotion. I was able to identify artists working with experience and weather and to note that they were doing so most commonly in photography and video art. My current location in London allows me to monitor the contemporary exhibitions and note the artists exhibiting here who are working with related concerns.

The work of Polish photographer Jari Silomaki (exhibited Sydney Biennale 2004) who takes one photograph every day in a kind of ‘weather diary’ is informing my current work. I am also investigating the work of a contemporary painter who exhibits at White Cube gallery London: Koen van den Broek, who makes ‘paintings examining our experience of landscape’ (white cube website 2005). His paintings are examining a more urban experience of landscape and certainly reference elements of modernist abstraction in doing so.

I have also gained contact with other research students in the UK, and through attending two conferences at Wimbledon College of Fine Art on fine arts doctoral research I am gaining further understanding of the perceived position of doctoral research in the fine arts both in the UK and worldwide. This has also provided links to information about other completed doctorates in Fine Arts giving me further awareness of research already completed in this field. It must be said there is very little in the way of painting in current and completed doctoral degrees in fine arts in the UK.

Lines of Enquiry within research

An investigation of experience, and one that refers to both the romantic sublime of landscape painting and the modern sublime of abstract expressionist colour field painting, seems to lend itself to an investigation of spirituality on some level. One possible line of enquiry that initially interested me was the possibility of re introducing into painting a sense of the beauty, spirituality and the sublime that appears in the video work of Bill Viola. It seems to me as a painter, and viewer of paintings, that painting doesn’t currently operate in this field, which is dominated by photography and video work, albeit with a very painterly look.

The second line of enquiry is that of investigation of experience via our interaction with the natural world through a focus on weather as one of the more experiential aspects of our daily relationship with the natural world (be it in an urban or rural environment). The historic inclusion of the weather in paintings intended to reference the uncontainable, the un controllable, the sublime. These things operate outside of what is representable, which puts them therefore in the realm of other un-presentable things such as experience, time, perception, memory…the invisibles with which this project is also concerned.

A quote from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing : ‘ landscape paintings often led initiatives in other painting…furthermore, their innovations led progressively away from the substantial and tangible towards the indeterminate and intangible’ (John, Berger, Ways of Seeing, 197?, Penguin Books, p 105). While this quote was made in reference to the history of painting, I see no reason why this could not still be a potential for painting today.

It is decided that the scope of this project is more specifically interested in the notion of weather and experiences of landscape. Although this in itself has a long history of relating to ideas of sublimity and spirituality it may be necessary to leave these aspects out of my research for the time being for clarity’s sake. They are identified however as possible future lines of enquiry for research.

Within both of these lines there remains the idea of painting necessarily referring to itself – to painting and its history. How much do my works engage with the history of painting, the ideas of modernism are present, are they critiqued or continued? This remains a necessary aspect to the research throughout the programme.

Kiran McKinnon
June 2005