In June 2016, I abandoned all source and reference materials as a basis for visual work. I’ve described it as a “post-Brexit Referendum Thing”, but who knows? A painting residency in Florida in early 2017 pushed this direction much further: I began working non-objectively on a larger scale, entirely from instinct and in a surface-responsive way without any idea at any stage where the work was going. Approaching a huge surface with no ideas in the head, no plan, was scary but exhilarating.

Working like this was not something I ever expected to do. Conceptualising issues through visual work has always been important for me. But letting go of the thinking and analysis allowed me at least to make work in the post-referendum nightmare world even if I couldn’t explain the resulting imagery to myself.

Better still, it led to a “freeing up” of surface marks and form I’d long sought. Surrendering to process rather than trying is the solution (as all artists know), but it’s extraordinarily difficult for me when resolving figurative work.

Now over the next five weeks I get chance to explore what happens when I work with the embedded experience of the last six months. In this residency, I may (though nothing is ever certain) renew my search for the figurative form as a reflection of my powerlessness in a discomfiting world.

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When I began this residency, I promised myself I would not overthink. I would not attempt to resolve conceptual concerns. I would remain open to possibility in everything I did. And I would only do what I wanted to do, not what I felt I ought to do. But in the first couple of days of feeling vulnerable, consumed by unhelpful vague fears of public humiliation and failure, it was easy to forget those promises, and to forget why I was here doing something I really wanted to do. I had to keep reminding myself: this is supposed to be fun! Fun without responsibility for producing any resolved work.

And I got there. It became great fun, playing without purpose, indulging in anything I fancied making. If I became fed up with a particular direction, if an experiment just didn’t resonate, I felt no stress about having to resolve the idea. I just moved on. In this way, it’s possible to generate a lot of work over five weeks.

I’d decided halfway through that I would present the work in an ongoing working studio setup. No editing, no re-presenting, no unmasking of edges. Discarded ideas propped up around the walls, the work table covered in jars of paint, medium and solvent, still full following my conversion to Dulux midway through. The larger pieces are framed not just by masking tape but by little watercolour and graphite studies and experiments.

I look around and realise everything has been generated out of my head in just five weeks. It’s gone from nothing, not existing, to a theatrically exuberant takeover of this vast space. Baroque forms in free fall, an ambition realised to paint forms entirely from memory, abstracted figuration pushed to the limits.

It’s another stepping stone on a continuing journey with blind corners every half mile. What a privilege.



Well over halfway into this residency. A daily routine is nicely established, and interesting insights emerge every day.

First, magic happens after at least five or six  hours play-work on a variety of meditative tasks (another layer of papier mâché on a life-size figure; sketchbook doodles; a series of small studies painted in rapid succession; more mind mapping). After a full day of happily pottering from mini-project to mini-project, back and forth, clocking up 10,000 daily steps without leaving the space, I start painting on a large surface with huge brushes and pots of Dulux with no idea of what will happen, but loving the process of slapping on paint rapidly without thought. Watching figures emerge. Not judging or correcting, but allowing the paint to be paint though admittedly there’s not a lot of choice with a four inch brush.

Second, allowing conceptual concerns to just be there, quite literally on the periphery of the space and my mind, and then getting on with making and not thinking, has allowed my practice concerns and processes to cristallise without brain ache. Issues which have nagged me for a long while suddenly seem clear, and my work without conscious thought reflects these concerns from inside-out, rather than the ideas driving the work outside-in. This feels right. I had not realised how much I was shoe-horning my work into my ideas.

Third, I have always known inside I am a one-stop alla prima painter. Although the work of the last year has made me realise I don’t need to overwork, and also that there’s nothing wrong with radical reiterations, I am loving starting and finishing huge surfaces in a couple of hours.  My storage issues will be worse than ever after this month, but it’s worth it to connect with my genuine inner self.


What’s special for me about working in this space in this  residency? What’s to stop me clearing out my usual studio space of all old stuff, and committing to a month of new exploration there instead?

Leaving aside the obvious absurdity of any attempt to empty my own studio, there are very real psychological and spatial challenges in moving in to a “white cube space” for a limited time. The tabula rasa feeling of that first morning was uncomfortable but ultimately an important and necessary driver in getting on with making, not thinking. Thinking and reflecting is my default mode. It’s where I go when work gets tough, to avoid confronting “failure” on an hourly basis. Failure is a glorious and productive force in artistic practice, but working to cheerfully embrace it in a new exposed environment takes some doing.

It’s taken till now to be okay with failing (interspersed by chinks of light, thankfully) in this vast white room.

The anxiety, the early discomfort, was only dealt with by not running away. For the first time in six months, I was committed to being in situ at work before 9am and not leaving until 5.30pm. Office hours. No exceptions. The usual distractions from full time studio attendance with no show deadlines in sight (vet visits, household deliveries, meter readings, dental appointments, chauffeuring family to/from the station, shopping, cooking, cleaning, tidying, blah blah bla) all fall away.

It is transformative to work office hours in a studio without a show deadline.

I’m there because I want to be there, but when I don’t, when I’ve reached impasse/block/pause, I turn and walk to another workstation, another new set of possibilities. Because there are no limits, no deadlines, nothing has to be resolved, I’m liberated to try anything, start anything, explore any path. With the space to do it.

Viewing large pieces from a distance is a joy. Spreading out a huge dust sheet to leave a mass of  tangled wire out without fear of tripping over it is a delight.

I couldn’t possibly be doing what I’m doing right now in the way I’m doing it right now in my usual space. And that’s not even touching on the important conceptual concerns and practice insights I’m getting.

So much possibility.


Over a week in, and the vast space has been shape-shifting and swallowing all and any work I make. My residency goals have been revised three times already, because I’m frankly so overwhelmed by the open-ended possibilities of this month that my mind is going non-stop even though I’m telling myself the priority is to make and experiment, not think.

My current self-imposed rules are

  1. Follow every whim to try out new materials or ideas
  2. maintain openness and receptivity to every artistic possibility
  3. avoid comfort zones at all cost

The only problem with such a loose set of objectives is that I feel I’m dropping into dilettante mode. Last week, I was clear in my mind that I wanted to “exploit the recent freedom of my non-objective painting in more figurative work”. I would forget about conceptualising and seeking to understand, and would just focus on the human form as the paradigmatic mode of human expression. But painting figures non-stop has inexorably led me back to underlying concerns about society in general, and suddenly I’m back in the narrative pond feeling I’m about to drown.

And I’m overcome by a desire to model: puppet figures, a bas relief and the early stages of a papier mâché figure are strewn amidst the painting materials. I’m flitting across the vast floor area with so many projects on the go that I frequently end up on the other side resuming the making of something I hadn’t planned to do when I set off 10 seconds earlier.

I literally have no idea from one hour to the next where things are going.

But on the upside, there’s a lot of work emerging, and still 2 1/2 weeks to make something of it.


A couple of days in, and the excitement and anticipation is quickly buried under a layer of an anxious sense of vulnerability and raw exposure.

My priority this first week is to leave aside all thoughts of underlying conceptual concerns and just focus on the materials and the human form. And as soon as I decide this, I’m seized by a need to retreat to non-objective work. My safety zone of the last 8 months. I don’t, of course, go back there. Whilst this residency is about instinct and intuition, I recognise a tendency to confuse habit with instinct.

I’m plagued too by the need to rationalise and justify painting the human form in a contemporary art practice today. In one sense, the exploration of humanity through the figure is such a universal and timeless artistic preoccupation that it shouldn’t be necessary. But I need my own personal justification.

And then there are the innumerable clichés and traps of figure painting which I’ve conveniently partly sidestepped in recent years but which are unavoidable now.

Hence the anxious vulnerability as I stand in my vast new workspace and survey the bitty random pieces of work marking my settling in.