Last Summer my friend Rich, who is in a band called Also Eden dropped me an email. He asked “have you ever done artwork for an album cover?” I replied that I hadn’t really (one of my pictures was used on an album before but it wasn’t made for the purpose) and half-joked “but if you’re looking for something different for your new one…?”
I’ve been distancing myself from both commissions and graphic work. Commissions because I find evaluating my work by other’s standards too stressful, and graphic work partly because I don’t particularly enjoy it and partly because I don’t think I’m very good at it, but mostly because I just don’t want to present that as what I’m doing. The world of album covers just now (especially in the progressive rock genre) is one of photoshopped montages and graphics. I don’t want to sound down on that style – it can be amazing – but it’s not for me and I don’t want to suggest that it is. I knew though that Rich had seen my work and knew what he’d be getting if he asked me for artwork so I was confident that if he had wanted a graphic cover he’d have gone elsewhere; most likely to Planet Twig who has done excellent work for him before. But what he wanted this time was “a Radiohead style package”, which sounded much more up my street. “That,” I said, “sounds like something I could do.”
That exchange led to a telephone conversation, where we bandied around some ideas – I shared a few paintings I’d done inspired by music before and Presence struck a chord with its ethereal landscape and vivid red streak. We agreed that a series was required to make a fold out CD booklet in the style of Marillion’s Afraid of Sunlight, an album and cover we both love. It started off as eight panels (there are eight tracks on the album) but we negotiated down to five based on the trauma cycle – one of the main themes explored by the music – which Planet Twig would then whisk into a properly designed album cover. I spent a bit of time researching on the internet and listening to the demos Rich shared with me before putting together a high level plan for the series and starting work on five pieces, entitled Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, each associated with a stage in the trauma cycle and a couple of tracks on the album.
Shock came together easily. Using a palette similar to Presence I wanted to capture that feeling of sensory overload when a shock occurs – when time slows down, the air roars in your ears and your vision bleaches out for a second that seems like forever – but I also wanted there to be something to strain to see; something which has been blocked from your view by the experience. The image was roughly the shape of the Houses of Parliament to get in the press idea of redaction – secrecy and concealing facts – and also because I know Rich has a penchant for politically scathing lyrics, but it is redacted beyond recognition. In truth I’m not really expecting anyone to notice the shape, just to realise that there is something there.
At this point the idea was to unite the pieces by splattering each with red paint, with the smears joining up when all five pieces were aligned, but I had decided to paint all five before adding the “blood” to make sure the colour and styles were consistent across all five. This, it turns out, was A Very Good Plan, because I didn’t do that in the end.
The only one that did get “redacted” with blood in the end was Anger. I wanted to get the idea with this one that the view had been blocked by the anger – again, it was redacted by the experience rather than artificially, so instead of adding the blood later, I went to town with impasto red and really smeared that paint around. I wondered at the end if I’d gone too far but I don’t think I did – it had to be visceral, and visceral this was.
I normally approach abstracts quite loosely. They’re what I call “pure” abstracts, in that there’s no internal logic or meaning to the composition, no language – they’re just reactions in which I aspire to completely bypassing any rational interpretation. This wasn’t going that way. I was getting caught up in the concept as much as the music and the need to get these to work together meant I had to plan more than any other paintings I’d ever done. Each had to be something to do with the concept, obscured in a manner which illustrated the effect that stage of the cycle has on one’s perceptions. When I started Bargaining, the rich reds were always what I had in mind from the music, and the plan had been to conjure the rich leather binding of old books, but then I had the idea to step the concept up and actually use text.
This is tricky, (a) because I have never used text in a painting before – in fact I generally avoid it because it is structured language – and (b) any text had to be meaningful, and also for practical reasons out of copyright. I initially thought of lyrics from the associated songs but then thought I should pick something out of literature that had similar themes. I turned to the internet and asked on Facebook and before long my far more educated and learned than I friends list had come up with several top ideas from Shakespeare to more recent culture, but the one I settled on was Goethe’s Faust. I admit partly that was because it was in German, which obfuscates the meaning even more (to non German speakers) but also because if ever there was a story about someone making a bargain they don’t fully understand the implications of, it’s Faust. In particular the section where the devil has to convince our hero that signing the agreement in blood is absolutely necessary to seal the deal.
So I spent a whole afternoon copying a section of text I understood only snippets of onto canvas with a very small brush not very effectively. The writing is shaky mainly because writing with a brush on canvas isn’t easy but it adds to the effect and isn’t easy to read. Every so often the word “Blut” (blood) crops up, which I emphasised by capitalising it. Cheery, huh?
The combination of deep red and gold is a favourite of mine, but it works especially here because of gold’s connotations with money and wealth. I wanted to show connections being made; bargains being struck. a whole messy jumble of them which couldn’t possibly be understood, so I created a section of criss-crossing lines redacting the text further. If you somehow managed to read my badly copied writing, in paint, in German, then this is going to finally thwart your attempts to understand what’s going on.
Conceptually (and conveniently, sequentially as well) Bargaining is the centre piece of the series so it had to be bold and rich, which I think it manages to be. Even next to the bordering-on-nauseating Anger, it stands out, and without any of the shock (sic) value, it manages to be slightly disquieting I think.
It is at this point that things started to get difficult. I had done a version of Acceptance quite early on but it didn’t fit the bill in terms of content, context or frankly quality, so that was out. Depression wasn’t playing ball either, with attempts to create something purely based on listening leading to a sort of sickly green landscape which didn’t fit either. Part of the “problem” here is that (fortunately) I have never experienced clinical depression first hand. Sure, I’ve had shit days and been down but that’s not depression. I know people who’ve been through this horrible illness and I desperately wanted this to do their suffering justice. It couldn’t be a trite depiction of a sad world – it had to show the debilitating inability to do the potentially simple thing that solves the problem and the awareness of the real world that was unavailable. I realised that despite being the one I was probably furthest from personally, it was the one I wanted most to get right.
It was a conversation down the pub with a friend who has suffered which gave me the idea for the final piece. She spoke of a graphic novel, which had depicted depression by a sea of grey faces, all staring emptily back at the reader. I wondered if I could depict the “real world” in a sea of colours and textures, then in the redacted section bleach them out to grey. The colour and richness of the world is there, just out of reach. Depression truly redacts the world.
I could go into the technical difficulties of turning coloured squares into grey ones in acrylic paint (in this, as with all the others, the painting was completed fully and then redacted – if in the future anyone ever analyses these pieces they will find the whole paintings underneath) but I won’t. It was a pain and it really tested my technical ability with acrylics. I like acrylics because you don’t need to worry about technical ability, you can just throw them around. For stuff like this, the layering of oils is so much better but I couldn’t switch mediums at this point so I had to fight it a bit.
Depression was conceived and completed during February, when I put up a picture every day as part of the 28 Drawings Later challenge, so I got feedback on it was it went. When it was finished, it was exactly what I had envisaged, but I still wasn’t convinced it said what I wanted it to. When I got a comment from Facebook that bowled me over from a sufferer who totally got what I was trying to say I knew I’d hit it right, and Depression joined the set.
When I approached Acceptance for the second time (there was no danger of the first version being used) I was actually in a frame of mind that comes with the final straight of a project, seeing that the end was in sight, which helped. I’d done a few concept sketches, redacting a landscape with deep scars, but it was only when I took to the canvas that the painting emerged. It showed a scarred landscape and a sunrise obscured not by a new scar, but by dispersing cloud – a new dawn lay ahead – but to bring the whole thing full circle I wanted to echo that shape of the Houses of Parliament from the first painting, and instead of doing so in the shape of the scar, I did it with the shape of the cloud. It’s subtle, and I’m not sure how many people will see it, but I know it’s there.
Acceptance was the only one I changed at Rich’s request. The creative freedom I had doing these was incredible and I imagine very few artists enjoy that ability to create without influence in a commission. Whilst I’d taken to the ‘scarring’ aspect of acceptance, Rich’s interpretation was brighter, more optimistic so I brightened the image up, emphasised the sunrise behind the cloud and we agreed it worked better that way.
So here we are – some six months after that first conversation with Rich and I feel like I’ve made an album of my own despite having no musical ability whatsoever. A collection of five tracks which come together to form something which is, hopefully, more than the sum of its parts. By the time it’s used it will be a flat design image on a layout but it will always have been conceived and executed as a series of proper acrylic-on-canvas abstract paintings which stand alone first and foremost. I wasn’t sure at a few points, or even immediately after they were finished, but I’m proud of the set now. It represents a stretch for me in terms of conceptual painting and also in terms of creating something pre-conceived instead of going where the paint leads. It’s been quite an experience, and it will hopefully be topped off with the fulfilment of a little childhood dream of mine – to see my artwork on a full size, gatefold vinyl album. The music is incredible too, so it’s an album I’m immensely proud to have my artwork part of. I’m grateful to Rich and Also Eden for letting me be part of its creation, and for providing the music that inspired the paintings.