I’ve just cleaned my glass.
I have an aquarium table that runs along one wall of my studio area – just the table, no tank – about 35cm high, probably 6 feet or more in length, on top of which sits an old, falling apart wooden coffee table.
The space underneath the table houses a tupperware tub and a Quality Street tin in which I keep my paint tubes.- large tubes in the tupperware, smaller tubes in the QS tub. I have to keep them sealed like this because I have to keep fumes at a minimum. My studio is home to all of my creative outlets – music, painting, etc – and houses all of my instruments and my computer as well as my paints, so I am in this room for pretty much all of my waking hours.
To the left of the coffee table is a plastic storage unit containing painting tools and accessories – kitchen roll, wipes, palette knives, varnish, various jars, dustbin bags, etc., with some palette knives and jars of paint medium sat on top.
I lined the top of the coffee table with white paper and on top of this I placed a piece of glass that I had cut exactly to the size of the table. There are exactly four items allowed on top of this table – a desk organiser containing my paint brushes, a small blue pipette jar containing white spirits, and two jars each around ⅓-full with vegetable oil, submerged in each of which is a small metal mesh dome.
To the right of the coffee table is a 40-litre spring-loaded touch-top kitchen bin, which is where my painty rags, tissues and wipes go until I can muster the courage to actually leave the house.
My easel also stands to the right of the coffee table, in front of the bin and, since I’m left handed, the white-backed glass on the table top allows me to have a large, smooth, cleanable area on which to mix my paints.
Also, if I’m finding it hard to match a particular colour, it allows me to slip a reference photo or swatch under the glass to ensure that I’m getting the right tints and shades.
To the right of this entire apparatus is a boom-style mic stand, which does double duty, carrying its intended load of a mic when I’m recording, but, when I’m painting, using a Frankenstein mount to hold an IKEA tertial worklamp with a white daylight bulb.
At the end of a painting session I cover the glass top and any paint on it with cling film to hold in the fumes and prevent drying. Usually when I first finish a painting I will leave the paints on the glass for several days, while my eyes forget the painting and I can look at it afresh to decide if it needs more work. If it does need revisiting, the mixed paints are still there, ready to go – or at least the last lot of colours are.
If the piece doesn’t need to be changed I then I am ready for the next piece.
It seems to take a day or so to get the last piece out of my system, so I ignore painting completely and play my guitar and faff around on the computer for a day or so. “Faffing around” also includes slaking my visual thirst – looking at things that fascinate me visually, and maybe deciding on future pieces. The inspirations I find are not for the very next painting, but for the painting two or three or four pieces after that, or not even to be painted at all, just saved to my resources folder to give me a feel for something – colour, motion, light – a mood board of sorts.
It’s an odd folder full of sea, clouds, eyes, faces, bodies, liquid, fire, rocks and rusted metal.
After a while my next piece starts nagging in my head and then – usually at night – I suddenly know it’s time to start a new piece.
There’s a ritual to it all that surprised me when I first started painting, and still surprises me now, as it seems to have landed on me, fully formed, without external influence. It doesn’t feel forced or taught, like the safety concerns and preparations of a DIY project – it feels sort of personal and cathartic and a tiny bit scary.
The first part is the cleaning of the glass, which starts with the lifting of the film.
Although in day to day painting the cling film lifts easily off the paint in a single piece, after a few days of sitting there while I decide whether or not I’m done with the previous piece, the film has begun to break down into the drying paint and in places form a bond with the paint and glass.
So I lift what I can and then use a large paint scraper – the type you get from Homebase or B&Q for stripping paint and wallpaper – and start scraping the more moist parts of the mess into a big pile in the centre of the table top. I scrape this up into a couple of sheets of kitchen roll, wrap it and it goes in to the bin. I repeat this until there is only set, dry paint on the glass, at which point I squirt the entire table top lightly with white spirit from the pipette. I hate the smell of white spirit so I try to use as little as humanly possible, literally just enough to moisten the top of any dried areas of paint.
Then I go at it again with the paint scraper, harder than before, until I can’t see any dried areas, just white spirit and dissolved stuff, which I wipe up. I then repeat this, this time continuing with the scraper until the glass beneath it feels completely smooth with no catches or gritty bits.
A final wipe with a piece of kitchen towel and then I polish the whole thing thoroughly with a dry, lint-free cloth.
What amazes me is how cathartic this feels. It is sloughing off the old painting and clearing the way for the new. Setting out your stall.
The ritual continues.
First there’s the canvas. I use two types – stretched canvas, and canvas board.
They each have their merits – the canvas board is more robust – heavier and hard wearing, you can really stab at it with a brush, but mounting it for presentation or framing is a pain. The stretched canvas, by comparison, is very light, delicate and flexible. Every time I handle a stretched canvas there’s a little part of me freaking out thinking I’m going to damage it. I tell myself that it’s fine and that they aren’t that delicate, but that little part of me reminds me that I’m a big
Still, as I carry them to my easel I like to drum my fingers gently on the back of them and listen to the tones it produces.
It sounds like a bodhran.
I choose which to use, unwrap the canvas and run my hands over the surface, making sure that it is undamaged. After the first time, when I learnt my lesson by tossing a canvas into the boot of my car with some shopping, they always are.
Sometimes I paint standing, sometimes I paint sitting, so I set my easel accordingly and put the canvas on it.
This is the scary bit. I look at the blank canvas and try to imagine what it will look like with the finished piece on it, and at this point I honestly don’t believe I can do it. I have a little panic that the last piece and all those that came before it were somehow flukes and this is going to be a disaster.
Then there is the sketch. I use charcoal and/or pencil for the sketching and I enjoy this part immensely – that initial part of the creation, adding form to the blank canvas. I used to sketch a lot as a youngster, but stopped in my twenties, and this takes me back to the pleasure I used to find in it.
Trepidation returns with the first layer of paint.
I’ve settled into a fat-on-lean technique where the first coat of paint is mainly liquin – a paint medium – and white spirit, with just a little bit of pigment. This is the only time I use white spirit in any quantity – as I said, I dislike the smell, I need to avoid fumes as much as possible because of where I paint, and it kills both your brushes and the saturation of the paint.
So during (and after) the first layer of paint, the overall feeling is “that looks like shit”, feeding into the whole “this is a disaster” paranoia mentioned above. That is compounded by the fact that I’m swabbing this clumsy, insipid wash all over the sketch that had previously brought me such joy.
With each successive layer of paint there is more paint and less medium (and no white spirit after the first layer or two). There is the potential to ruin what I’ve started, nagging away in the back of my mind, but also, with each layer the whole thing is refined and things start taking better shape. Both pleasure and trepidation increase as I go on.
But it is also an extremely Zen process. The world recedes, the past and future no longer exist, all there is is that immediate instance of contact at the end of that brush, for the duration of that stroke. It is meditation given form, and I come out of each session feeling charged and drained at the same time.
By the time I finish a painting I feel a tiny bit ragged.
I love the fact that I can do what I do. I hate the fact that I can’t do it better. I hate that it feels like going through the wringer each time. I love going to bed thinking about how I’m going to approach the next day’s painting, and I love waking up the next day with purpose – almost having to assign myself “before you start painting” chores with painting as a reward – do the dishes BYSP or they ain’t getting done. Do the shopping BYSP or you’re not going to be able to eat when you finish.
Then when the painting is finished there is the initial euphoria of having Made something, of having caused something (hopefully) beautiful to exist that would otherwise never have been. This is followed by the slow suspicion that you could have, and should have, done it better and that you are a charlatan, a fluke – go on, do it again! you can’t can you?? – and the inability to see anything but the flaws and mistakes.
That’s the point where I break off and ignore my paints for a while.
But it won’t go away. It’s in me now and I only wish I’d discovered this twenty-odd years ago.
And so the whole process begins again
But it all starts with the cleaning of the glass.
It seems to me to be the most important part of the painting. It is neither a creative act nor a destructive one (or not entirely at least), it is cathartic precisely because it is an act of pure Intent. Everything else is The Past. I am starting anew.
So I’ve just cleaned my glass. Now for the scary bit…
The Search for Chesney Hawkes