The Nature of Painting

Drawing Edinburgh


Above: Drawing Edinburgh from the Salisbury Craggs with ink pen on paper, 2009, 42x60cm


Notes about the painting: ‘Cirencester Capital of the Cotswolds – For Daniel Bingham’, 2013, by Laurie Plant.

Commissioned by ‘The Bingham Library Trust’, this contemporary artwork about Cirencester today became an increasingly ambitious, two year project.

I hope this picture can tell more than a thousand words. Not by exploring these places as illustrations or topography, rather by the way in which they can be perceived at that point in painting, where words become less effective and real seeing can begin to spark the imagination.

Initially making a series of pencil, watercolour and pastel drawings on location enabled me to spend time with each of the buildings and places. Observing these living, changing entities, ‘drawing my way into in them’, absorbing a fuller understanding and affinity, helped me understand them differently in order to begin to make this painting a multi-dimensional, complex mystery, not just about places you may recognise, but rather to question the way in which they are investigated and re-presented.

This commission is the most recent in the ‘Iconic Cities Series’, but it differs in the way it focuses on an individual: Reflecting on the continuing influence and legacy of Daniel Bingham’s generosity to date and containing many interwoven ideas about the history, politics, education, charity and benevolence, business, geography and topography of Cirencester. There are, depending how you differentiate, around fifty-four elements that make up the painting.

Although born in Cirencester, Bingham spent most of his life and successful career in Utrecht, managing the Dutch-Rhenish Railway. This sparked my curiosity to investigate further, and try to combine, the themes in Dutch paintings. For example, the anamorphosis (optical distortion) in Holbein’s painting of ‘The Ambassadors’ and the use of chiaroscuro striations (light and dark contrasts) in landscape perspectives by Hobbema – and to venerate them in the Cirencester painting.

This Dutch use of optics led me further into the field of the surreal, towards Dali’s optical techniques. For example, paranoiac imagery (subconscious double meanings) in the depiction of Jill Tweed’s sculpture of the Woolmarket Ram and also in the Blackjack phoenix flames.

Excited by contemporary architects Calatrava and Hadid, as well as another Dutch Artist, Escher, all of whose buildings have moving parts, implied movement or fluidity, I have investigated, in the illusions and perspectives of Cecily Hill, Corinium Museum, Watermoor Spire, Octavia’s bookshop, how curved linearities and refraction can distort our perception of the effects of gravity, our spacial awareness, balance and sense of proximity.

The painting gradually reveals through metaphors, puzzles, distortion, reflection, refraction and other techniques, a kaleidoscopic treasure trove of thoughts that attempt to make recognisable parts of Cirencester today as unfamiliar as possible, in the most precise way.

I am so proud that this painting is on public display for all to share and that this inaugural exhibition in the town centre now plays a key part in the ‘Life and Legacy of Bingham Celebrations and Centenary 2013’.


Making The Wycliffe Mural

Just like you students, there’s been so much for me to learn while working on our mural as Artist In Residence at Wycliffe College.

I hope watching this project evolve has been quietly nurturing your potential as much as it has mine, not just by watching how drawings can take shape outside ‘in the field’ but equally by observing the process of creative imagination, of turning drawings into a huge picture and watching the mural developing.

I avoided the trap of making a design for the mural. Instead I used the drawings to develop ideas openly, then let a language develop naturally on the wall, to coax this huge picture into being in an unexpected way, to surprise myself! For example, I never envisaged making the chapel spire reach 25 feet upside down until I was doing it, responding to the height and reach of the wall space.

I hope this ‘openness’ shows in the mistakes and necessarily unfinished parts that make you look and think, how, what if, why, to inspire further creativity and excitement.


I’ve scared myself because I didn’t realise, until the challenge unfolded, how much this would take to make it happen and would like to thank all those involved in this collaboration.

It has required a huge amount of practical thinking and common sense, but common sense is the enemy of creativity! – Yes, I want the mural to give you pleasure and delight in your surroundings, but also to scramble your mind and challenge your attitude towards seeing and understanding things. I’d rather try this and fail than provide you with just another pretty picture, because paintings aren’t made to go nicely with your furniture, they are tools for communication, inspiration and development, driving culture and civilisation forward.


In our mural, the everyday familiar things, like buildings and landscape, can become an extraordinary confusion of unfamiliar things, by trying to develop a precise visual language with rules that can be twisted or disrupted and enable me to take risks into the unknown.

The idea that landscape painting or other genres of painting are ‘dead’ is ludicrous! – You just have to try and find a new way of looking at them.


Does anyone have another large wall to open my mind with more challenges and further questions?



Notes on keeping creativity alive and tuning in to contemporary culture.

Thoughts about Degas and Rosenquist.

American Artist James Rosenquist said:

“Art is the greatest risk of all, because when you’re making something, you’re constantly asking yourself what the hell you’re doing. You can have a lot of fervour, a lot of action, a lot of energy. You can run around the block and have a cup of coffee, but you’re always wondering why you’re doing what the hell you’re doing. That’s the part that excites you. The work part doesn’t, the possibility of a new outcome does.”


Equally for me, it is the ‘why?’ that is the crucial part of putting the spark into creativity.


Rosenquist continued:

“It’s scary putting a new vision together that can change your thinking or someone else’s. I think it can be done. You can make something so beautiful or so serious or so ugly that it scrambles your mind and changes your attitude towards seeing things. A metaphor for it is finding a new dimension. That sounds like science, but the new dimension might be right at hand. It’s like sitting and unravelling your sweater; all of a sudden your sweater comes off and the whole atmosphere changes because of one loose thread.”

(Extract from James Rosenquist by Judith Goldman p.12)


‘Changing attitudes towards seeing things’ is vital to avoid stylistic inertia and to keep traditions of art/picture-making alive through veneration and disruption.

I love Rosenquist’s aim of making ‘something so beautiful, serious or ugly’. Having just seen the exhibition Degas and Movement at the RA, I was struck by how his dancers are all three of these things:

1. From a distance and on the surface, they are beautifully appealing, colourful ballet.

2. Analysing his ideas and attitude to picture making and capturing movement helps understand how serious they are.

3. Looking at them closely, many of the lines, features and proportions are deliberately unrefined and regularly distorted to make ‘lies that are truer than the literal truth’. This is an accuracy of distortion that can mean at times shifting or displacing limbs, features and faces of the dancers, so as to be closer instead to the truth of their movement, dynamism, rhythm and balance. Sometimes, to me, this reveals an awkward combination of beauty and ugliness, something that makes his later pictures much stranger, more of a  ‘new dimension’ that ‘scrambles your mind’, than many of his earlier, more refined studies.

At the time he was working, capturing movement was relatively unknown territory for picture making. Maybe it was his combination of experience, memory, practised ability in drawing and redrawing particular poses and his use of the latest photographic possibilities, working using all these methods simultaneously, that enabled him to achieve this strangeness. Surely, ‘having a go’ at this new vision was a risky enterprise; Rosenquist’s ‘greatest risk of all’. Thus it is more of a lucky incidental that Degas’ pictures, subjects and themes are so readily appealing.


Notes about ‘Style’ in picture making.

I think style is the outward appearance of things and the resulting appearance of one’s attitude and approach; which is the important crux of it. Trying to respond to the way the tree grows rather than its appearance is a good analogy; like the way in which stylistic conventions of beauty are all a sham and change through time like a barometer of our cultural attitudes and preferences.

Style, for me is an ‘outward’ outcome of trying to achieve goals in picture making and on the one hand it changes, develops and emerges naturally of its own volition over the course of time, a little like your handwriting does… on the other hand it can be a very conscious decision as an artist to change the way you make the work technically, to change its outward appearance just because it looks too much like someone elses, so, according to an idea you have, you can just try and remake it in a different way/method or material until it looks less familiar and more unknown. Thats the catalyst for stylistic changes to occur and pattern shifts in culture.


Stylistic traits are in general, followed by ‘the insider’ as fashionable outward appearances, whereas they are disrupted and venerated by the cultural ‘outsider’ who seeks to overturn the paradigm/cultural normatives and existing status quo. (sounds a tad heavy but its serious fun when you’ve got a puddle of paint and some wire and you’re trying to challenge some of the greatest painters, artists in civilisation!


A recognisable style presents a clear language and (for dealers and investments) a marketable hallmark. This can be the outcome of a focussed investgation that you have. I always find this hard; to focus without distraction! I have a protean approach to picture/sculpture making with at least 6 main, concurrent investigations going on at once. Outwardly, these themes/series can look very diverse stylistically yet they are related and overlap, sparking-off one another in unusual ways, this keeps the creative process alive.


Teaching and making.

Teaching is also a way of finding out more, setting one’s own investigations off-balance and trying a new way of investigating something you’re struggling with in the studio, or exploring a connection you have with another artist’s work. Teaching makes one present and analyse ideas clearly and students come up with surprising results that can really help me listen in to an unusual combination/result to develop further. Mick Maslen, my tutor at Cheltenham, recently commented: “You teach best what you need to know most”. Think about how Klee, Kandinsky, Itten and Albers used a fusion of teaching and research to bring creativity alive.


For me, the rewarding thing is the combination of teaching, exhibiting and studio that make the creativity come alive and keep the momentum there to make another step, its finding the balance that suits you.



Artists statements can be really important in directing the viewer into the correct critical framework you’re thinking in and helping people connect with your attitude and approach, so they can enhance and restrict meaning, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if its what you’re struggling to communicate. Hopefully, the work will still have its own inherent mystery and things that words can’t describe, the ineffable magic stuff that occurs when you’re making the picture, so the crits and descriptions are another way of exploring it that can help understand it in another way for you and your audience. Though statements can be off-putting when they are the usual generic, arty solutions or formulaic diatribe.


Self Expression

Self expression, depending on what is meant and for what purpose? – For me, the key to finding out what motivates your self expression is held in the balance by the following and is perhaps best explored by asking the following ‘Why’?


Contemporary Artist Graham Crowley asks:

“What are the pictures you want to paint? – Why?

Which pictures do you have to paint? – Why?

What pictures MUST you paint? – Why?”


Anyway, that is just one angle on it, depending on what one is setting out to achieve:

Ask: What made you start painting? Is it fun, comfort, challenge, money, livelihood, personal expression, to challenge culture, other peoples pictures, exploring the unknown… ?

Why, why, why, do we make pictures? – This is the bit that keeps me going.