In the Pink Chair Yellow Background, 2006 - 42 x 38 inches. Oil on Canvas
First Frances in Chair, 2006 - 38 x 30 inches. oil on canvas
Second Frances in Chair, 2006 - 38 x 28 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Black Chair Sun Behind, 2007 - 46 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
Black Coat Pink Lining, 2007 - 46 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
New Chair New Boots, 2007 - 38 x 46 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Garden Chair, Coat with Green Lining, 2006 - 38 x 30 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Blue Chair, 2007 - 48 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Dark Blue Chair, 2007 - 40 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Garden Chair Yellow Background, 2006 - 40 x 28 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Garden Chair Green Background, 2007 - 40 x 28 inches. oil on canvas
In the Pink Chair Scarlet Background, 2006 - 48 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Purple Chair, 2006 - 42 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Red and Yellow Chair, 2007 - 40 38 inches. Oil on canvas
Standing in Red, 2007 - 68 x 26 inches. Oil on canvas
Standing in Green, 2006 - 68 x 26 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Upside Down Chair, 2007 - 38 x 32 inches. Oil on canvas
In the White Chair, 2006 - 30 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
In the Yellow Chair, 2006 - 40 x 38 inches. Oil on canvas
Orange Chair with Book, 2006 - 38 x 46 inches. Oil on canvas
Pink Chair Yellow Shoes, 2006 - 38 x 46 inches. Oil on canvas
Red Chair Pink Shoes, 2007 - Oil on canvas, 38 x 40 inches.
Frances - 2006 to 2008
Below is an extract from the book Sargy Mann: Probably the Best Blind Painter in Peckham, where he describes making some of these paintings.
Painting Frances, 2007
I finally went completely blind on the thirtieth of May 2005, two days after getting home from three weeks in Spain with my son Peter. I discovered that I could still paint. My head was full of Spanish subjects which I spent the next year painting and these were in my exhibition at Cadogan Contemporary in September 2006.
The problem was what to paint next. There would be no more ‘seen’ subjects, no more new ones, that is. Painting from more distant memory seemed the obvious thing but when I consulted my memory, nothing came to light with sufficient clarity or urgency. Then there were dreams, what about them? The visual quality of my dreams is, as far as I can tell, faultless and I often see in them things I would love to paint, but they are only accessible for a few seconds on waking and I have not found out how to return to the same place, can anyone do this.
What I actually did was paint my wife Frances again. I asked her to sit in the armchair in my studio and I knelt on the ground so close that I could touch most of her. As I tried to understand her position and the chair in my totally blind state, by touch alone, I found that my brain, my visual cortex, was busy turning this three dimensional understanding into the view that I would have seen, and the two-dimensional pattern that this would give. My brain was drawing very much as it would have done from visual input even though now all it had was tactile input.
I made six small pictures, which weren’t any good before I realized that what I needed was a canvas more like life size. As soon as I moved to a larger canvas it started to work. I was taking a few rudimentary measurements and drawing fairly freely, much as I had done with my Spanish subjects and I was painting the colour and the light as I knew it to be from memory; dark brown chair, dirty green carpet, white wall behind the chair, grass through the window and Frances wearing black as she usually did. The third of these larger paintings was of Frances sitting on the top of the stairs as she had been in the last painting that I had made before going blind but this time instead of standing on the half landing below, I knelt on a step so that I could touch her and this conveniently gave the same angle of sight.
Back in the studio, thinking about what the next painting would be, I realized that I wanted to kneel exactly in front of the chair so that it would be symmetrical in the canvas and when I did this, the fronts of the two chair arms were at finger tip distance. When I measured the distance between them with my white stick, I found it to be precisely the width of a lot of canvases that I had stretched up. I decided that I would, make this distance my picture plane so that I could transfer true measurements at this distance from my eye, directly onto the canvas and I started to mark positions on my canvas with blobs of Blutac. I thought that I didn’t want to paint the chair the dark chocolaty brown that I had never much liked. I remembered that some years ago I had put a white dust sheet over it, and I went to the cupboard to get one. Then, as I was taking it out, I thought, you silly bugger, you wont be able to see it. You can make the chair any colour you like. This was a breakthrough and of course it applied equally to all other surfaces; the wall, the floor, Frances’s clothes, although I didn’t think that I would want to paint her in colours that she didn’t wear (much later, I did though). What should the colours be, then? Pale rose chair, white shirt and black skirt, pulled back to show legs in black tights, flesh coloured flesh, but what for the background and floor, which together made up a lot of the picture surface. It was when I was thinking about this while having a bath, that a favorite Goya portrait swam into my mind. It was the late one of a beautiful woman in black on a tangerine couch that I had seen and drawn when I was a student. This made me think of other colour harmonies in Goya; reds and oranges, black and white, and I decided that I would make my background cadmium yellow, deep and the floor, cadmium red. From then on, I chose the colour chord for each painting quite intuitively, thinking in an overtly decorative way which before, I would never have allowed myself to do. It seems that blindness has given me the freedom to use colour in ways that I would not have dared to when I could see.
When I measured the chair, I found that its width, depth and height were all the same to within an inch or two and so Frances was contained within a cube of space. I liked this and the way that this block of space fitted exactly into the rectangle of my canvas. I also liked the symmetrical, almost heraldic patterns of strong colour that I was imagining, and, I hoped, making.
It is important to explain that Frances is a very good painter, as she is my eyes. She never tells me what todo but I ask her if I have done what I meant to and we discuss the paintings as they progress and I ask her a lot of questions. She has a perfect eye for colour, which is like having perfect pitch if you are a musician. Most of the colour I use is straight from the tube and I seem to have a good memory for how colours will look together, how one will look glazed or scumbled over another, and even the feel of how much pigment on the brush to mix with how much of another colour.
Frances was given a beautiful Kenzo coat with a wide collar and a satin lining and I thought that it would be fun to have her in the chair with the coat spread open over its arms so that the lining showed. I decided on a completely symmetrical pose with her knees and feet together and her arms straight out to the end of each chair arm. One of my favorite pigments is Schminke, magenta, a quinacridone of exquisite beauty, especially when mixed with a little white and I planned to make the coat lining this colour. The coat would be black as would be Frances’s shirt and skirt and she would have black tights, as usual. For the magenta lining to make the biggest impact, I would make the rest of the painting hot, so cadmium yellow for the chair, cadmium yellow, deep for the background and burnt umber for the floor, all a bit darker than the magenta; what my mother would have called a clash. Later, I scumbled the floor with a green, violet and white, mix and then, after I thought I had finished it, I scumbled the yellow chair with a mix of burnt umber and white which looks almost violet against the hot yellows, as I knew it would. The reason for doing this was that when I asked Frances and Peter, who was with us at the time and was photographing in the studio a lot, whether the magenta was the dominant colour as I wanted it to be, they said, not really, the yellow was winning.
It was while I was painting ‘Black Coat with Pink Lining’, that certain problems I was having with drawing came to a head. I was so close that I was looking straight down on Frances’s feet and my eye level was not that much above her head so that the vertical angle of ‘view’ was perhaps 80 degrees, and it was 55 degrees from left to right. I was drawing, placing my blobs of Blutac, from measurements I was taking or estimating, on a picture plane at finger tip distance and in ‘Black Coat, Pink Lining’, things were going very wrong. There were, are, three main difficulties, which I haven’t, here, the space to go into thoroughly. First, and most important, is that if you measure at a fixed distance from your eye, you are taking measurements on the inside of a hemispherical surface and as all cartographers know, you cannot transfer a pattern from a curved surface, the landmasses of the world say, onto a flat surface, a map, it doesn’t work as we all know when we look at our atlas, and it doesn’t work in painting. The second problem is that your shoulder is not in your eye so that if you take measurements at arm’s length, they are going to be too small above eye level and too large below eye level. The third problem was that some parts of my subject were too far away to touch, her shoulders, for example. In the early stages of this painting, what was at the top, was too small and what was at the bottom, was too large. After an hour long telephone conversation with my friend, the painter, Francis Hoyland, I decided to make a drawing machine. I set up a sketching easel so that the top bracket was in my eye position and attached two sticks to this point which could represent rays of light. I can only think about all of this in terms of the geometry of light even though I can’t see. I marked the distance of my picture plane, how far away I was measuring from my eye, with elastic bands on each stick so that I could rest the sticks on Frances’s shoulders, say, and then measure the distance between the two elastic bands, then mark this distance on my canvas. This worked pretty well, and the drawing quickly improved. Of course I was not just joining up the dots, I was moving about the canvas, about the figure and the chair in my imagination, in a rhythmical way based on my understanding arrived at by touch and as a result of this, I was often moving the Blutac. At an early stage of this painting, I realized that I had got the whole thing wrong in the rectangle, and I moved every one of about seventy blobs of Blutac up about two inches. All the time I am trying to visualize the coloured pattern and judge whether it is working as a metaphor for my experience.
I have arthritic hips and I was finding all the kneeling down and standing up ache-making so I brought a table in from the garden and shortened its legs so that my eye level would be the same when I was standing as it had been when I was kneeling. As I wanted a change, I put a plastic garden chair on the table and made some smaller paintings of Frances sitting in this, then I asked Michael, my younger son, to put the arm chair on the table and
it just fitted. When I had ordered stretchers for all these paintings, I asked for two tall, narrow ones as I thought it would be interesting to try a standing pose although I had no idea how I could do it. Years ago when I could still just see well enough, I made a pencil drawing of Frances standing with her ankles crossed as she was wont to do. I had always liked this drawing and I asked her to stand like this now. In order to be in a position to touch as much of her as possible, and not to have a high eye level from which the foreshortening from so close would be ridiculous, I cut down the legs of a backless kitchen chair so that I was looking just above her waist. I am quite pleased with these two paintings as I think that they do give a sense of being very close without the foreshortening seeming unreal and unlike looking at a person.
After fourteen paintings of Frances in the brown armchair, I was worried about repeating myself so I bought a different one. It is rather ugly but very comfortable and Frances can get into wonderful, semi-lying positions in it. It is also, I am told, a very beautiful red leather and I like knowing this. The subjects of my paintings have always been the physical reality of the world as I experience it in light and space. But as we are talking about experience, which is something strange going on somewhere in the brain, it is clearly not just a matter of optics. However much my subject is perceptual, is, or was, visual, that cannot be all that is, involved. Feelings, emotions, associations, and goodness knows what, cling to percepts and are inseparable from them. I have never much wanted to know about any of this, I acknowledge it but leave it at that. I would rather leave my subconscious alone to do its stuff unhampered by conscious thought or recognition. For me, painting is essentially a non verbal medium. My belief is that by painting and drawing one can discover experiences which cannot be discovered by words, just as there is another realm of experience only accessible through music. I don’t mind talking about the purely visual part of my subject matter with words because I am secure in the non-verbal experience that I am talking about, but I don’t want to explore the non-visual parts of my experience with words incase that is how I identify them rather than by paint. There are probably other reasons why I leave psychological considerations alone, ones more to do with my personality and fears, even, but others can look into that if they must. I do have a sense that these paintings of Frances are more personal, closer, psychologically as well as physically, than those made from sight and I think that just as blindness has given me the freedom, the courage, perhaps, to use colour more daringly and expressively, so blindness may have given me the freedom and courage to engage more closely with my subject.
Sargy Mann, February 2008.